Harry Zeitlin
Grateful Every Day, Modeh Ani Lefanecha!

Striving hard for herd freedom

I had hoped to publish these thoughts before Pesach, but computer problems prevented me from getting any work done at all in the last three weeks. Der mentsh trakht un got lakht; Man plans and God laughs. But even this all-too-common phenomenon which we all experience so frequently in our lives is also filled with meanings if we take the time and make ourselves open to listen.

While it’s stupid to say that God brought Covid into the world only in order to teach Jews who study Torah, that infinitesimal slice of mankind, a profound truth, that isn’t to say that there are no profound truths we can learn from the terrible plague which has besieged all humanity over the past year. Obviously, we should learn from everything we’re shown, everything we experience and everything that occurs.

It’s arrogant to even entertain the fantasy that we can possibly know why The Creator does anything, but the fact that He arranges the world in certain ways is raw material for us to explore since there is no contradiction that He has much more to do than to maintain a clandestine dialogue with Torah scholars and that everything He in fact does also contains messages for us aimed at our refining ourselves to, as Ramchal puts it, more closely resemble God since He is the True Good (Hatov HaAmiti).

As Pesach approached this year, I think we were all still in a state of shock from the past year. While we here in Israel are being shown a vision of what a post-Covid world can look like, largely thanks to the aggressive and mostly successful vaccination program we’ve undergone, most Jewish communities are still in situations not that much different than we all were in last year. For many, this Pesach will, once again, be a mostly solitary experience with, at best, masked, socially-distanced and, therefore, very small Seders. This year’s miracle in Israel can be replicated everywhere now that safe and effective vaccines have been crafted, manufactored, distributed and administered.

None of us as individuals would have been capable of doing all these things, but now that the vaccine exists, all we need do is “opt-in”, not only protecting ourselves, but also protecting our family, friends, neighbors and society in general. That there is a significant number of people refusing the vaccine to make “herd immunity” impossible and dooming us all to repeated waves of deadly infection, is beyond my ability to imagine.

But this is not the first time mankind, or a large enough segment, chooses badly.

As we learn in Shemot 13:18, וַחֲמֻשִׁ֛ים עָל֥וּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃, Bnei Yisrael went up from Egypt Chamushim, which is normally translated as “armed”. Rashi explains this rather unusual word for armed to really teach us that Chamesh, one-fifth, only one-fifth of the people chose to leave with their fellows. Fully four-fifths of the Jewish people decided that eternal slavery in Egypt was preferable to freedom in their own land.

You might ask why didn’t God just take them out of Egypt even if they didn’t want to go. Certainly after tasting freedom they’d understand. But, of course, you don’t empower someone by taking away their power and autonomy. Remember, He never removed their power to decide to opt-in.

Bechira, Free Will, is the power to decide and that includes the power to make bad decisions as well as good ones. But it also contains Tshuva, which should never again be mindlessly translated (or mistranslated) as “repentance”, but, rather, the ability to go back and make a better choice. In everything.

Because the potential for Geula, redemption, meaning total redemption, is also in our reach. Always.

About the Author
After almost 30 years, Harry Zeitlin returned home to Jerusalem! Growing up in Denver, CO, he began Torah studies at an early age. He also had the privilege of knowing and studying with Rabbi Shloime Twerski zt"l. He graduated from Yale College (BA 1974) with an independent degree in communications, theory-and-practice, focusing on filmmaking and linguistics. Harry had a 45+ year career as a professional artist (photography, to which he is just now returning!) and has played guitar for more than 50 years, in addition to his 30+ years as an orthodox rabbi teaching Torah across the denominational spectrum. He lived in Israel from 1982 - 1989 and returned in 2016. I'M BACK! Grateful every day! Follow his spiritual adventures. He is always available to speak, teach, present a Shabbaton or other workshop. ......or to serenade your group with his guitar.
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