Barry Lerer
Senior Rabbi, Central Synagogue London

Coronavirus, the Spies, and the Return to Normal

For many weeks, even months now, people have been talking about “the return to normal.” When will day to day life go back to the way it was pre-pandemic? When will lockdown end so that we can pursue the things we did for years before lockdown?

Well, this week, here in the UK, we got a little glimpse of that when some of the lockdown rules were loosened. Zoos opened! The Premier League restarted! And after being ordered by our Prime Minister to “Shop with confidence”,  shops selling non-essential goods were allowed to open for the first time since March 23rd.

Here in Central London, one of the eeriest things of the lockdown has been the total silence on the normally bustling Oxford Street and Regent Street, as they have been rendered into a ghost-town over the past 3 months. And this has been the same scene in high streets up and down the country.

All that changed in the early hours of Monday morning when shoppers descended on to those very high streets in their droves. Some couldn’t wait, even camping out in from the night before! The winding queues outside in the streets were reminiscent of waiting for rides at a theme park,  but shoppers who have been deprived for three months were keen to get their hands on something, anything, to make themselves feel better. Feel normal. One commented, “I wanted to come today … and have some retail therapy.” Another saying “I’ve missed shopping so much during the lockdown, so I was always going to try and make a day of it once stores were allowed to reopen.”

It would seem that for many, life has just been on pause for 3 months, and now they are going back to doing the things they always did- just with restrictions on social distancing and handling goods!

This week we also sent out information and plans for our Synagogue’s reopening, Please God at the beginning of July. I am hoping that people will embrace the return to Synagogue in the same way that the public has embraced the return to the shops.

This week’s Parsha details the sad episode of the spies who enter into the Land of Israel to scout it out before the Children of Israel go to conquer it. The mission turns out to be a disaster- and out of the twelve leaders of Israel who entered into the same land and viewed the exact same places and encountered the same people, ten of them came back with a negative report whereas two, Calev and Yehoshua, were full of optimism and all in favour of conquering the land. How do we explain this discrepancy?

And another question: The Parsha ends with the portion of  Tzitzit which we are familiar with from the Shema that we say twice daily.

In that Final paragraph, we read the words – You shall not stray after your heart and after your eyes. It seems strange that the Torah put the heart before the eyes

Surely, you first see something with your eyes and then your heart desires it. Why is it the other way around here?

There is a famous story about Simon Weisenthal who, while in the concentration camp in Mauthausen, a fellow inmate in his barracks had managed to sneak in a Siddur. The man then proceeded to “rent” the siddur out for a few minutes at a time, to other inmates, in exchange for part of their meager daily rations.

After the war, he explained to Rabbi Eliezer Silver that he could not believe that this man had used his Siddur to benefit in this manner.

The Rabbi pointed out to him that instead of focussing on the one person who made business with his siddur, he should focus on all of those who were willing to give up a share of their rations to merely hold the siddur in their hands for a few moments!

After the suffering in Egypt and the wandering in the desert, the other spies looked to the Promised Land as offering all the worldly blessings they had desired. Their focus was purely on the physical and because of this, their eyes concentrated on the drawbacks of the land and they mentioned the large fruit and the giants and how many people were dying.

However, Calev and Yehoshua were on a higher spiritual plane, they were not concerned with the material benefits– they knew that this was a Holy Land. A land with the Divine Presence. This is what they were looking for. Therefore, even within the very same things that the other spies saw negative, they were able to see something positive, something which could be explained as coming from God Himself, and thus they were optimistic about the land.

This helps us clear up our question about the order of the eyes and the heart. The heart comes first in the verse because it is not that the eyes see something and subsequently the heart desires it. Rather the eyes notice what the heart desires it to notice. It notices that which is truly important to the individual in their heart. The eyes see what the heart wants it to see. Bederech She’adam Rotzeh Leylech- Ba Molichin oto– “Man is lead on the path that he wants to travel in”. Or, to paraphrase the song The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel “A man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest”

Now we can understand how two people can look at the same thing and draw out different conclusions. It’s all about your perspective. What you place value on.

Whether it’s a desire for a return to the shops or the Synagogue. Simon Weisenthal in the camps, or the spies in this week’s Parsha we all need to take a moment and reflect and ask ourselves. What is our perspective? What are we focussing on? What are our priorities?

Has the lockdown made us think differently about what we want from life? What we are looking for?  What we want normal to be?

Different people can be faced with the same situation and end up with vastly different conclusions – our duty is to make sure our heart is in the right place.

About the Author
A community Rabbi for over 18 years, Rabbi Lerer is Senior Rabbi at Central Synagogue London. He also teaches in the Beis 6th Form Programme at Hasmonean High School.
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