Should we rush back to shul? (Shabbos 132)

It was the 2nd Century in the Roman province of Judea.  The government had decreed capital punishment upon anyone who would engage in the teaching of Torah. Pappos ben Yehuda discovered that Rabbi Akiva was convening assemblies in public and engaging in Torah study.

Pappos said to him, “Akiva, are you not afraid of the empire?”
Rabbi Akiva answered him, “I will relate a parable. To what can this be compared? It is like a fox walking along a riverbank when he sees fish gathering and fleeing from place to place.”

The fox said to them, “From what are you fleeing?”
They said to him, “We are fleeing from the nets that people cast upon us.”
He said to them, “Do you wish to come up onto dry land, and we will reside together just as my ancestors resided with your ancestors?”
The fish said to him, “You are the one of whom they say, he is the cleverest of animals?  You are not clever; you are a fool. If we are afraid in the water, our natural habitat which gives us life, then in a habitat that causes our death, all the more so.”

“So too,” continued Rabbi Akiva, “we Jews, now that we sit and engage in Torah study, about which it is written, “For it is your life, and the length of your days”, we fear the empire to this extent, if we proceed to sit idle from its study, as its abandonment is the habitat that causes our death, all the more so will we fear the empire!”

Not a few days had passed when they seized Rabbi Akiva and incarcerated him in prison, and seized Pappos ben Yehuda and incarcerated him alongside him.
Rabbi Akiva said to him, “Pappos, who brought you here?”
Pappos replied, “Happy are you, Rabbi Akiva, for you were arrested on the charge of engaging in Torah education. Woe unto Pappos who was seized on the charge of engaging in idle matters!”

מִנַּיִין לְפִיקּוּחַ נֶפֶשׁ שֶׁדּוֹחֶה אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת? רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה אוֹמֵר: מָה מִילָה שֶׁהִיא אַחַת מֵאֵיבָרָיו שֶׁל אָדָם דּוֹחָה אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת — קַל וָחוֹמֶר לְפִיקּוּחַ נֶפֶשׁ שֶׁדּוֹחֶה אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת.
How do we know that saving a life overrides Shabbat? Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya says it is derived from the mitzvah of circumcision: Just as a bris, which involves only one of a person’s limbs, overrides Shabbat, all the more so should saving a life, which is a mitzvah that involves the entire body, override Shabbat.

Rabbi Gershon Henich of Radzin asks: How can the Gemara compare these two cases?  A bris doesn’t override Shabbos on account of the child’s unwell limb.  The child was physically healthy prior to the ritual.  The bris was performed for spiritual purposes.  And yet the Gemara infers from the fact that a bris entails the ‘saving’ of one limb that it goes without saying that in order to save the entire body it would certainly be right to break Shabbos!  He concludes that the Gemara is implying that spiritual danger is of no less concern than physical danger.

From an educational perspective, that means giving our children as equally stimulating and vigorous a Jewish education as their secular education from the cradle to the academy.  From an engagement perspective, it means making sure that we devote as much time to our spiritual nourishment and engagement – attending shiurim and Torah lectures – as we do to our hobbies and other worldly pursuits.

In some ways, this engagement has been easier during the lockdown, with a plethora of online spiritual engagement activities, the likes of which Rabbi Akiva could never have imagined.  At the same time, however, as Zoom and Facebook fatigue set in, and we’re itching to get out of the house for the good of our families’ physical and mental health, we mustn’t lose sight of our spiritual health.  The spiritual momentum you’ve built up over the last few months might need to be refocused for a post-lockdown world.  However that looks for you, it’s paramount that your spiritual health remains at the forefront of your mind and goals.

As the shul doors open, some of us are ready to reengage with renewed vigour.  Others are more hesitant to return, which is completely understandable and reasonable.  While we must be ever so careful to abide by government guidelines for the protection of our physical health, as we transition from the privacy of our homes back to public life, we must be equally vigilant with regards to our spiritual health and that of our families.  If you’re still unable to be in shul, you need to think about how you redouble your efforts to recreate a domestic spiritual environment for yourself and your children.

If you’re physically able to attend shul, but just don’t quite feel ready yet, you need to ask yourself why.  Do you sincerely feel it’s life threatening to be there?  Or have you gotten into a relaxed pattern of Shabbat or weekday morning behaviour?  It might not be easy to get back into the old schedule of shul as a vital part of your daily or weekly life. It takes a concerted effort and a conscious shift in mind-set.  Nobody should judge anyone else, because you don’t know what’s going on in their lives.  But you do need to know for yourself where the right place to be is.

Unlike physical ill-health which can be seen clearly, spiritual ill-health often passes unchecked, and therefore goes untreated.  Knowing the malady means you’re half way to the cure.  May you always maintain good health, physically, mentally, and spiritually!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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