Sitzkrieg 2020 – Following Commandments Precisely, A Biblical Perspective

We are in the midst of a war against Covid-19; make no mistake about it. We have a superb cadre of healthcare professionals on the front lines. Much as we might wish to help directly, few of us are trained or equipped to do so. For most of us, our mission is to support our medical heroes, by not becoming or causing additional patients for them to treat, by following government and Halachic prescriptions designed to save lives.

For many of us, our orders are relatively simple; just sit at home and hence the title ‘sitzkrieg’ (sitting-war). We are also advised to wash hands frequently with soap and water and  maintain social distance. It’s not an easy task just to stay at home, because it can be lonely, frustrating and even debilitating not to be able to hug and kiss our family. We’re also such social beings and technology is not a satisfying substitute for human contact, in person discussions and genuine camaraderie and engagement with family, friends and colleagues. I frankly miss going to Shul and learning in the Beit Midrash.

Yet, following the instructions of government precisely as intended is a critical and essential part of the program. These protocols have been endorsed by our Rabbinic leadership and, in effect, it is a Mitzvah scrupulously to adhere to them[i]. Indeed, we demonstrate our selfless and pious devotion to G-d by following these Rabbinical commandments, in order to save others from harm. Evading the rules to pursue some religious practice that our religious leaders suspended under these exceptional and exigent circumstances is not only inappropriate[ii], it is Halachically prohibited.

This week’s Torah portion of Vayakel and Pekudei[iii] provides an invaluable insight into how we should guide our actions in this crisis. It describes the realization of G-d’s prescription for the building of the Tabernacle, as the antidote to the disastrous sin of the Golden Calf. To better understand why this remedy was so appropriate, the sin itself must be viewed in context. It appears that after the extraordinary and somewhat passive experience of the revelation at Mount Sinai, many had an exuberant and misdirected outburst of energy. They attempted to come closer to G-d, through the artifice of the Golden Calf. The sin was an outlier. The Jewish people were otherwise pious Sabbath observers[iv]. To solve the problem, a new approach was required. In response, G-d commanded the Tabernacle be constructed as atonement [v].

The Bible notes that all of the Jewish people were involved in building the Tabernacle[vi]. Some were expert craftspeople and others just supported the effort. It was a unifying and ennobling experience because everyone participated in the mission and had their assigned roles. Serving a higher purpose that transcended the individual generated a sense of unity, completeness and peace.

The Sfas Emes[vii] points out, the act of following the precise instructions regarding the building of the Tabernacle, as G-d commanded, was no mean task. People have a tendency to overdo, embellish, improvise and put their own personal mark on things. These are indicative of actions taken for the purpose of personal ego gratification instead of for the sake of Heaven. This is why the Bible text repeatedly declares that the Tabernacle, its component parts and accoutrements were built as commanded. The completed Tabernacle is referred to as the “Tabernacle of Testimony” because it testifies to the atonement the Jewish people achieved, through building it precisely as G-d commanded[viii].

Not properly performing each task in accordance with the plan, no matter how seemingly insignificant, would seriously have affected the outcome. Therefore, balance and boundaries had to be maintained for the group to succeed. It rectified the sin of the Golden Calf, where they didn’t act as G-d commanded. The performance of each Mitzvah as G-d commanded is a tangible way of demonstrating acceptance of the yoke of Heaven.

The mention of the Sabbath in the Biblical text[ix] describing the completion of Tabernacle is also most cogent. The Sabbath requires the cessation of work, as commanded by G-d. As the Sfas Emes notes[x], observing the Sabbath was an integral part of the process of rectification for the misconduct of unilaterally doing things that G-d had not instructed be done. Unlike the sin of the Golden Calf, the Jewish people now acted precisely as G-d commanded and stopped the work of building the Tabernacle on the Sabbath.

This is not some abstract phenomenon. We are enabled to transform mundane tasks like sitting home into something more; the immersive experience of performing a Mitzvah. It’s uncanny how good it feels to perform a Mitzvah, precisely as G-d commanded it be done.

We are also involved in a noble enterprise to save those most at risk from harm. Each of us has their assigned jobs. What higher purpose could there be than the role we are asked to perform today?

The Talmud[xi] analyzes the nature of being commanded to do a Mitzvah, as compared to the voluntary performance of the good deeds embodied in the Mitzvah, per se. It concludes that a person commanded to do a Mitzvah earns greater reward than someone performing the same act voluntarily. At first blush, intuitively, this statement seems flawed. Don’t we applaud those who volunteer? However, as Tosafot[xii] explains, the basis for this conclusion is a psychological one. The person who has the obligation to perform may have greater anxiety and concerns about any failure to do so. Someone who is just acting on a good impulse can elect to stop, at any time, without consequence. On another level, it’s not unusual for a person to bristle at being told to do something, especially something he or she might be inclined to do anyway. It’s also natural to balk at just blindly following orders. It takes a great deal of effort, training and trust to overcome this instinctual response. Tosafot[xiii] describes a person’s internal struggle to overcome his instinctual nature and instead follow G-d’s commandments. Doing so can yield great satisfaction as noted above.

Rashi[xiv] focuses on the human predilection to pick and choose among things that must be done and to favor some over others. He advises that a seemingly slight commandment must be as beloved as a weighty one. Whether the commandments appear rational or not, we like them or don’t or they seem onerous or too easy, it’s about doing them all, precisely as prescribed. Any excess, deficiency or deviation can upset the balance and cause the machine to self-destruct[xv]. The Talmud succinctly summarizes this concept as whoever adds, subtracts[xvi]. By properly embracing the entirety[xvii], a genuine balance can be achieved.

This includes doing some form of productive work even while at home. Avot D’Rav Natan[xviii] advises that if not doing work at home to make a living do something else like fixing up the home or gardening. Being involved in some form of work activity is extremely important and so is keeping physically fit. Whether it’s working out, walking around the house or yard, while maintaining social distances, or other forms of vigorous activity, a regular exercise regimen is vitally important. The Mishna[xix] stresses there are important psychological aspects to work that make it critical that everyone have some level of involvement in this fundamental human activity. It records that idleness is unhealthy and leads to licentiousness or mental illness. Avot[xx] reports Shemaya said love work. Work is not just a necessary evil needed to make a living. It is a part of what makes life meaningful and productive.

A healthy portion of the day can be devoted to Torah study. At the present time, we can’t do it optimally in the Study Hall with others, an environment, which enables a combination of mental and social engagement that is good for the mind, body and soul. We can however, use zoom, skype or other technological means to learn with others in the interim. Maimonides[xxi] also advises it is beneficial to listen to music, look at art and stroll in beautiful gardens or other venues. We can’t just stroll outside or visit museums at the present time, although there may be some places we can safely walk outside. Check local restrictions before venturing out. In any event, we can make use of the technological equivalent online, which for many of us will have to do for now. There are also opportunities to volunteer to help others by making vital food deliveries, while safely following the guidelines. For most though our job now is to help others by not infecting them or becoming infected ourselves.

Our mission is to follow the rules; it’s a Mitzvah. The goal is noble; not to overburden the healthcare system so that those most at risk and in need can be timely and properly treated. The CDC guidelines are available online. There are also many locales where additional restrictions are applicable that should be consulted.

May everyone be safe and well and may this healthcare emergency pass soon without harm.

[i] Deuteronomy 17:11 and see BT Shabbat 23a and Sukkah 46a. See also Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Rebels 1:1-2; Ritual Slaughter 10:13; Transmission of Oral Law 26; and Blessings 6:2 (dealing with Rabbinical enactment to wash hands after meals as a precautionary health measure).

[ii] Bachya ibn Paquda, in Duties of the Heart (in the introduction and Eighth Treatise, Examining the Soul), cites Ecclesiastes 7:16, that a person should not be overly righteous nor overly wicked or a fool. This includes not separating from the world and doing for his neighbor that which he would love happen to himself (Leviticus 19:18). He urges us to help each other in Torah and worldly matters, which includes helping with buying and selling and other societal matters.

[iii] Exodus 35-40.

[iv] See the Sfas Emes commentary on Parshat Vayakel and on Parshat Pekudei, which offers a number of striking observations with regard to the sin of the Golden Calf and its rectification through the building of the Tabernacle..

[v] See Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed 3:32.

[vi] G-d’s command to build the Tabernacle, in Exodus 25:8, states they (i.e.: all of the Jewish people) shall make G-d a Tabernacle. See also Exodus 39:32 and the Sforno’s commentary thereon, as well as, Exodus 35:21 and the Ramban’s commentary thereon.

[vii] Supra, Note iv.

[viii] See Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 51:8, as well as, Rashi commentary on Exodus 31:18. See also Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed 3:32. However, Nachmanides, in his commentary on Leviticus 8:2 and Exodus 25:1, appears to disagree.

[ix] Exodus 35:1-3.

[x] Supra, Note iv.

[xi] See BT Kiddushin 31a; Bava Kamma 38a and 87a; and Avoda Zara 3a.

[xii] See the Tosafot commentary on BT Kiddushin 31a and Ritva commentary thereon.

[xiii] See the Tosafot commentary on BT Avodah Zara 3a.

[xiv] See Rashi’s commentary on Deuteronomy 13:1, as well as, Sifre Deuteronomy 82.

[xv] See commentaries on Deuteronomy 4:2 of Rabbeinu Bachya, Kli Yakar and Daat Zekanim. Reference may also be made to the Sefer Yereim 371:1 and the Sefer HaChinuch 454:3.

[xvi] JT Nedarim 9:1 and BT Sanhedrin 29a.

[xvii] Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 9:1.

[xviii] Avot D’Rabbi Natan 11.

[xix] Mishna Kesubot 5:5, BT Kesubot 59b.

[xx] Avot 1:10.

[xxi] See Maimonides, Shemonah Perakim, Chapter 5.

About the Author
Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.
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