I wish to dedicate this essay to aliyut neshama of my father, Yosef ben Sarah, whose yahrzeit was on the 19th of Iyar, 5780.
Rabbi Mendel Kessin: 21st-Century #54: How Coronavirus Accelerates the Redemption Process / RaMCHaL’s Yahrzeit 5780, given May 19th, 2020
The rabbi begins his lecture honoring the memory of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, the RaMCHaL, and dedicating the lecture to the aliyus neshama of Rabbi Moshe Chaim ben Yakov Chai.
We are to note that RaMCHaL was one of the masters of Kabbalah, in fact, one of the greatest in the past 500 years. “Even the Vilna Gaon said that, had the RaMCHaL been alive at that time (the time in which the Vilna Gaon himself lived), he would have walked from Vilna, Lithuania to Padua, Italy” to have met with him to learn from him. Furthermore, the rabbi points out that RaMCHaL was a master in many fields: logic, poetry and drama, grammar, ethics, hashkofa, a scholar whose unique intellect inspired the rabbi to devote himself to the study of the RaMCHaL’s Torah. “I owe him a tremendous debt….so he is obviously one of my major rebbes.”
The rabbi establishes the yahrzeit—commemoration of passing as the date chaf-vav Iyar—26th of the month of Iyar of which the sephira count is “yesod, she’b’yesod—the secret of the ‘foundation of the foundation’,” which is indicative of foundational ideas of Judaism that the RaMCHaL helped illuminate.
To address the ongoing “confusion” that so many people continue to experience during this period of pandemic and its aftermath, the rabbi lays a foundation for showing the “inscrutable ways that G-d brings the Redemption.” The context for understanding events is the system G-d “instituted” in the form of three categories of actions called hanhagas:
1- Hanhagas ha’Kium: actions that “set-up” Creation, assigning characteristics to its spiritual and physical domains: The construct’s ultimate objective is for mankind to bring about its tikkun–rectification so that a “nation,” a population, will exist in olam ha’ba– Future World.
2- Hanhagas ha’Mishpat: the justified actions G-d takes in response to the acts of man based on man’s freedom of choice: Cause and effect is the dynamic. Consequences are the effect of G-d’s judgement caused by man’s decisions.
3- Hanhagas ha’Yichud: actions to ensure that, despite the inclination of mankind to exercise his choice to sin excessively, there will be an ultimate rectification and existence in the Future World.
Were it not for this last system of Hanhagas ha’Yichud, the entire journey of life—a life more likely to be rooted in sin than in serving G-d–would not only be wasteful, but frustrate G-d’s ultimate purpose. So, Hanhagas ha’Yichud can be thought of as a “back-up system” guaranteeing that “G-d’s Will cannot be frustrated, cannot fail.” Though these actions of Hanhagas ha’Yichud are rooted in justice, in cause and effect, they are, nevertheless, inscrutable. The Gemara recognizes this when it says, “rasha v’tov lo,” that an evil person can have much good fortune and that “tzaddik, v’ra lo,” a righteous person is dealt what seems to be a terrible hand.. To us, it doesn’t seem to make sense. These outcomes that seem counterintuitive are those of Hanhagas ha’Yichud.
Why are these actions so mysterious? There is a famous story by our sages of the execution of Rabbi Akiva that took place on Yom Kippur in Caesaria when it was part of the Roman Empire. Rabbi Akiva, considered one of the greatest rabbis who ever lived, responsible for the transmission of the Oral Law to future generations, a scholar knowledgeable of an “astounding amount of chochma—wisdom of Torah” was being executed in a most horrible way. He was flayed so that his death was torturous and protracted. Before he died, he uttered the famous words “Shema Yisroel” (Hear O Israel) and the sages tell us that the angels exclaimed incredulously to G-d asking how could this be the just reward for such devotion to Torah and service?
G-d’s response establishes the mysterious nature of Hanhagas ha’Yichud. G-d warns the angels to desist from asking why this fate should befall Rabbi Akiva. When they refuse, G-d warns that their persistence would result in the annihilation of Creation, returning it to its state of “tohu v’vohu”—unformed and void as described in the beginning of Genesis.
The angels were right. Why such a response from G-d? It seems like a threat. There is a powerful explanation for this: The agonizing death of Rabbi Akiva, though appearing to be contrary to G-d’s system of justice, happened to ensure Creation’s rectification. The inexplicable events that seem to invert justice are part of Hanhagas ha’Yichud—somehow.
Why not explain this to the angels? Such information would inevitably come to the attention of the Satan, the chief prosecuting agent in the Holy Tribunal. The Satan doesn’t want a rectification. He will claim, prosecute, accuse—do whatever is within his purview—to prevent this mysterious, inexplicable system from culminating in outcomes contrary to his desire, a desire for an unredeemed world thwarting G-d’s Plan to bestow the ultimate good upon mankind during the messianic era and in the Future World.
Who is this extraordinary angel G-d created, the Satan? He has three “jobs”: He is a tempter, known as the “yetzer ha’ra”—the evil inclination. He is the “mekatreg”– accuser, the heavenly chief district attorney. He is the “malach ha’mavet”—the Angel of Death who executes the judgement of the Heavenly Tribunal should that be its verdict. Given these three tasks, we might anticipate the problem. Throughout history, Jews have sinned and the Satan, based on the demands of his jobs, is authorized to prosecute and carry out the justified consequence. But, G-d does not always want to abide by the justice system He created as required. Perhaps He wants to delay the consequence. G-d must somehow “get around” his own system. So, what does G-d do to dissuade the Satan from bringing a case? He “gives” the Satan the trait of yielding to self-interest that he may be biased. If he is biased, he can be bribed! So how is this bias instilled so that the Satan can be thwarted from his G-d-given task?
The rabbi describes it as a dictate issued to the Satan by G-d in which G-d tells the Satan that his survival, like that of all Creation, is sustained by a “Divine Flow.” But, after the sin of Primordial Adam, the Satan’s existence will now be sustained and empowered by holy energy diverted from the Jews when they sin, and this, principally, from the Satan’s efforts to tempt them.
The Satan now has two reasons to prosecute: Primarily, it’s his “job,” but, more provocatively, and exceeding his assignment, the Satan’s motivation is to recognize and realize his self-interest. To do so both nourishes and tremendously empowers him each time he wins a case bestowing upon him, rather than the Jew, the energy of kedusha—holiness that enables him to continue as tempter and executor.
But G-d can exploit this bias too by persuading the Satan to refrain from some particular accusation because, to refrain will result in even greater profit. What does G-d gains from this? Should G-d want to give the Jews something that justice would terminate, G-d can “get around” this and the Jews get what G-d deems necessary for them to have.
This has occurred throughout history. And here, the rabbi offers two examples of this shochad–bribery: G-d approaches the Heavenly Tribunal in 1898 issuing a directive for the return of Israel to the Jewish people. Immediately, the Satan rightfully argues that the Jews don’t merit it. So, G-d makes a deal. He tells the Satan that his efforts to promote sin will be eventually boosted when those at the forefront of the establishment effort—those prime targets of the Satan’s subversion–will be installed and in control. G-d will allow them to be the rulers of the fledgling state. In exchange for the Satan’s agreement to a Jewish state, G-d agrees to give initial control of the state to rulers who will compel Jews to sin. G-d makes his case for “those guys (the Eirev Rav)” from whom the Satan has been successfully siphoning off holiness for quite some time. So, with the prospect of even more holiness coming his way, he agrees. Who founds the state? Theodore Herzl. So, despite the Jews’ lack of deservedness, the Jewish state is established.
Another example occurs in the 1960’s-70’s when it is G-d’s judgement that then was a propitious time to bring the beginning of the study of the messianic Light—Kabbalah. And true to his calling, the Satan says, “You cannot give them this hasaga—ultimate understanding! They’re undeserving!” And, justice is correct. G-d wants to appease him, as per the system He Himself set up. “You can’t quiet the guy!” So, G-d says, “I’ll bring the concept of Kaballah to the world and you can get your guys (sinful gentiles) to degrade it.” The Satan figures this to be a “great idea” because if it is degraded, the Jews are apt to dismiss it and he profits. And that is what happened. The Kabbalah gets “mixed up with all that New Age stuff, crystals, all that stuff “ and Kabbalah becomes commercialized, trendy, and oh-so-chic. The Satan says, “This is great!”
The ultimate strategy G-d employs to hide his intent is, using his infinite intellect, His use of the Satan himself to be the instrument of Redemption. While the Satan thinks he’s getting the better part of the deal, he is being made the fool. He is the “vehicle” to bring the Redemption. In fact, the gematria of Hanhagas ha’Yichud is 496. That is the exact numerical value as in the phrase “b’yad sitra achra”—in the hand of the “other side,” referring to the other side of holiness, the kingdom of the Satan. So, the hanhagas ha’Yichud progresses, expressing itself tactically, in the hands of the Satan! In the end, we will recognize this. “And the one who is going to have a heart attack is the Satan!” says the rabbi. He thought he was furthering the cause of justice and would enhance his own power, but he was actually bringing the Redemption closer.
This is not unlike Moses being raised in the palace of Pharoah. “But that’s ridiculous!” the rabbi exclaims in light of Pharoah having ordered the murder of all the firstborn of Israel because he’d been told that a redeemer had been born. Ironically, Pharoah raises the redeemer in his own house, being responsible for the education and nurture of he who Pharoah most feared and tried to do away with. “That,” the rabbi emphasizes, “is how G-d works.” What we assume is happening is seldom so. The paradoxical nature of events is disguised.
“Now we can begin to understand what is happening today. You are looking at the actions of Htoanhagas ha’Yichud.” A question arises, and has been brought to the rabbi’s attention regarding the extraordinary fulfillment of the completion of the Daf Yomi cycle by hundreds of thousands of diligent Jews who have studied, and completed “Shas,” the Gemara, “and celebrated it!” How can it be, the rabbi has been asked, that such a luminous accomplishment, conferring so much merit on the Jewish people, culminates in the Torah being “taken away”? Due to the pandemic, shuls and yeshivas are closed and there are no Daf Yomi lessons taking place. And if this were not enough, so many teachers, so many Torah scholars have died! A second question arises: since the time from Purim through Passover is regarded, traditionally, as redemptive, and we know that the final Redemption will follow traditionally, how can it be that the pandemic comes at such an auspicious time? Every expectation is dashed. That which is logical to predict, to hope for, is inverted to its opposite—or so it appears.
“So, what are we looking at? It is absolutely a paradox. You are looking at the actions G-d must take to further the Redemption….In fact, you are looking at what is identical to the death of Rabbi Akiva,” the rabbi says, a torturous execution conferred upon a person so undeserving of it, an outcome that is “unintelligible based on what we know is the justice and the goodness and the kindness of G-d.”
“Is it possible,” the rabbi asks, “to figure this out, to get some insight into how G-d works—the depth of the intellect of G-d? And the answer is yes!”
Referring to the two previous installments of lectures about the pandemic, the rabbi reminds us of the idea of the Messianic Light entering Creation through a Gate which is “vast” but which closes as the Jews sin. At this point, an alternate access for the Light, the holiness, a Window within that Gate, opens. It is an aperture to ensure that Creation doesn’t completely cease though this inferior Light differs markedly from the past when the world was infused with more holiness. As this Window continues to close due to ongoing rejection of holiness, “that’s very bad!” But the rabbi mitigates our anxiety with the idea that final closure of the Window prompts the final re-opening of the Gate—the Redemption. This is Hanhagas ha’Yichud.
“Think about those things that are enormously threatening to the Satan. First of all, we know that Torah is the greatest antidote to the satanic influence,…a cure,” as the rabbi terms it. Torah gives a person kedusha because Torah and the soul “are one” so that studying Torah changes the individual. Chazal–our sages, record G-d’s pronouncement that, should the Jews abandon Him, they will, inevitably, be restored to Him by retaining their study of Torah. The Torah is, among other things, a compendium of His Will, the mitzvahs, the knowledge of His Will. This is the “cure” to the infirmity of the satanic enterprise that confers decrepitude when “we don’t know anything.”
The rabbi’s next question: “Why is the world ‘caught up’ in smartphones?” Since the greatest threat to a person is his ignorance, The Satan knows that people are more apt to think about their lives, be introspective, if they have fewer distractions and more contemplative time—“Who am I? What am I? What have I done? Where am I going? What is my purpose? Who is G-d? What is a Jew?” So, the strategy is to distract with smartphones, compulsively so. The hyperavailability of the internet by means of the smartphone has become a means to deliver dangerous content, fake news, constant distraction. “These devices are satanic” particularly in that they are a component of another deal forged between G-d and the Satan. G-d directs the invention of a device to ultimately enable the transmission of Torah. The global connectivity this device offers will enable the messiah “to give a shiur—lecture to seven billion people!” But then, typically, the Satan provides evidence for mankind’s lack of deservedness. So, G-d assures him saying, “OK. You can have it first. You can have all the shmutz, all the filth, all the time-wasters you want!” That’s the bribe taking advantage of the Satan’s bias, his self-interest.
The Satan realizes that, since Torah is the antidote to ignorance surrounding the meaning of existence and Who G-d is, the Torah is the most dangerous adversary the Satan has. “So, guess what? Daf Yomi! The….greatest ensemble of the Jews in the history of the world…..becomes the greatest threat” to the Satan. He realizes he must stop it.
After ignorance, the second threat to the Satan is Trump, a messianic figure and the embodiment of the tov she’beEsav—the good aspects of Esav fighting the ra she’b’Esav—the evil aspect of Esav. The rabbi has spoken about this at great length in many video lectures since 2015. The entire establishment: Democrats, the Deep State, Trumps adversaries, “are the Satan’s main guys.” Their defeat will be cataclysmic to the Satan’s survival.
The adjunct threat of Trump is his assistance to Israel. The reunification of territory that is in the offing is not something the Satan can allow. Despite Trump’s untrammeled electability, this pandemic has cast a shadow on a landslide success that would have cinched the unleashing of Trump’s unencumbered power to do even more on behalf of Israel. The Satan has to stop this “at all costs.”
So, again, the Satan brings a prosecutorial case to stop the Torah and Trump. How? The pandemic: closure of Torah academies, synagogues, deaths of Jewish educators and Torah leaders. Additionally, the destruction of economies creates a chalisha—weakening of faith. “Where is G-d?” many Jews will ask. The unprecedented success of the economic revival in America under Trump is undermined, that selling-point and impetus for a landslide victory.
How could G-d allow this? The Satan doesn’t know about the Gate; he only knows of the Window. His presumption is that the holiness he has usurped will ensure his survival even though the Window closes and existence itself is nullified. But it is G-d’s intent that the Satan shall himself be destroyed. How? By this pandemic! the darkness for a closing Window has been accelerated but, paradoxically, it has also accelerated the opening of the Gate! The Satan is the agent of the Redemption by hastening the darkness he expects will certify his continuity even as the world is destroyed. The Satan is unaware of Hanhagas ha’Yichud, its principle, its mechanisms. This is why our sages interpret that part of the liturgy stating that, about G-d’s ways, the fool cannot understand. Who is this “fool”?—the Satan.
There’s an argument in the Gemara as to whether or not the Torah will be forgotten by the Jewish people. The chachamim—scholars maintain that, yes, it will be forgotten. We know that the Redemption can come in one of two ways: as “kulam chayavim”—all are sinful, or “kulam zakaim”—all are righteous. Will the Gate open before or after the Window shuts? The scholars maintain that it will come when the fullness of Jewish iniquity is marked by being devoid of Torah, forcing the utter closure of the Window. But Rav Shimon bar Yochai says, “G-d-forbid; the Torah will never be forgotten.” What is Rav Shimon alluding to?—to what is happening today. The Torah has not been forgotten, abandoned. The proof? Daf Yomi. But, it did become enough of a threat to the Satan to compel him to stop it and, paradoxically, hasten the Redemption he sought to prevent. Rav Shimon was right—not only that the loss of Torah is unthinkable, but that its maintenance, even its celebration, would become the Satan’s motivation to step up efforts to oppose it and, thereby, hasten the Satan’s greatest nightmare—his end.
With this presentation, this culmination of the two previous lectures on the meaning of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is hoped that we have become more adept at resolving paradox, at uncovering irony, more able to grasp that within contradiction, in the sardonic, in the tragic, and even in the tragic-comic there is, most clearly, the Hand of G-d.