Of late we have heard several rabbinic ‘sages’ offering the reason why, in their very humble opinions, our society is being plagued by the Coronavirus.
- One declared that the virus is a punishment for having allowed the gay pride parade.
- Another declared that it is a punishment for our using the internet.
- A third declared that it is because frum Jewish women in Lakewood are wearing shaitels (matrons’ wigs) that are more than shoulder length.
Who am I to argue with such sagacity?
Nevertheless, I would like to throw my hat into the ring as well, albeit mine is a washed out olive drab baseball cap rather than the 30 gallon, custom–built authoritative rabbinic sombrero that might inspire awe in women whose shaitels dip a tefakh (handsbreadth) below their shoulder blades.
The three absolute reasons cited above all have something in common, namely; all of them relate to humrot (stringencies) regarding mitzvot sh’bein adam l’Makom (laws that are between man and G-d) if they even regard any mitzvot to begin with. None of these stringencies have anything to do with mitzvot sh’bein adam l’haveiro (laws concerning the interaction between people.)
Several years ago, in anticipation of the shnat shmittah (the sabbatical year), I wrote a column suggesting that we take a one-year sabbatical on all humrot regarding mitzvot sh’bein adam l’Makom and spend the year focusing more diligently on mitzvot sh’bein adam l’haveiro.
More specifically, I argued that for one year we would dispense with such stringencies as halav Yisrael, by drinking ordinary milk; glatt kosher, by eating ordinary kosher meat; foregoing all the Passover insanity of covering every surface, and eschewing matzo balls until the 8th day (for those unfortunate enough to have to endure an 8th day), and the myriad other increasingly onerous stringencies mass produced by an ashkenazi haredi humra industry that never runs out of new ways to make life difficult, if not impossible.
As I saw it, all of these creative attempts to further hamstring our lives were the result of a significant population of men with nothing but time on their hands. These kolel avreichim were attempting to somehow justify their sitting all day in yeshivas with nothing tangible to show for their supposed scholastic efforts.
Indeed, it was the collective effort of such yeshiva men that produced a contemporary body of work regarding the laws of Shabbat. They managed to prove that pretty much every single Jew not tied to a chair for 24 hours is somehow or other violating the laws of the Sabbath. The simple act of opening a can of tuna fish or a container of orange juice on Shabbat suddenly required an intimate knowledge of complex halakhic rulings before one could undertake such a simple task – one which our parents, grandparents and great grandparents had no problem doing without worrying about the flames of hell consuming them in the afterlife.
So, yes, during the sabbatical year we would even open cans of tuna fish on Shabbat by using a can opener without first puncturing a hole in the bottom of the can using a sharp object, and only then using the can opener to pry open the lid, but only half way, before teasing the fish out of the leaky mess created by this complex procedure.
At the same time, to honor the sabbatical year, we wouldn’t simply be let off easy on the humrot which surely matter so greatly to the A-mighty. Because, during this special year, we would be tightening up our behavior toward our neighbors and friends. We would be scrupulous in our business dealings. We would avoid cheating on taxes, and helping ourselves to government programs to which we are not legitimately entitled. We would not turn a blind eye when someone needs help. Parents and teachers would be careful in how they talk to children. We would invite those who truly need invitations to our Shabbat tables – such as single parents and their kids – not just social peers, or those who might be useful to help our children get coveted internships. We would give real tzedakah that nobody else knows about. We would recognize people who are not wealthy but who quietly do important work for the community with no expectation of honor.
I imagined that such a sabbatical year would be truly redemptive. But I was wearing the wrong kind of hat, so nobody listened.
Now, lo and behold, we have the Coronavirus and my dream is coming true in real time. Suddenly all of the humrot regarding mitzvot sh’bein adam l’Makom are falling by the wayside while those regarding mitzvot sh’bein adam l’haveiro are acquiring new urgency.
We are being told to ignore the pre-Passover stringencies of the past as these are impractical when we are in virtual lockdown. The mikvahs visited daily by the most fastidious humra seekers are closed. The shuls they run to three times a day are locked. The kolels where they learn to spin new stringencies are off limits. Products that do not have a kosher for Passover label but which contain no prohibited ingredients are being allowed for consumption. And some (Sefardi) rabbis even went so far as to allow the use of Zoom to connect lonely people during the Seder. Alas, they were steamrolled into retraction by (Ashkenazi) rabbis with even bigger hats and more aggressive fists.
At the same time there is a huge, organic emergence of acts of generosity and compassion. Thousands of young people are volunteering to help the elderly who are shut in. We are inundated with efforts to bring prepared meals to those who cannot go out to shop. Neighbors who did not know each other’s names, are suddenly introducing themselves and offering to help in any way possible.
This glorious flowering of interpersonal concern and generosity is unprecedented. And it required no rabbis in order to make it happen. It was spontaneous – just ordinary people rising to the occasion and doing the right thing.
So I would like to suggest that perhaps the reason the Almighty in his infinite wisdom brought us the Coronavirus was in order to steer us clear of the plague of humrot sh’bein adam l’Makom for which He has very little use, and guide us into a mindset of mitzvot sh’bein adam l’haveiro, which surely pleases Him greatly.
Science – the sort of knowledge not produced in a kolel – will surely find a vaccine against Coronavirus. But this will take some time. Meanwhile we have a golden opportunity to make a habit both of eschewing the senseless humrot that make life difficult if not unbearable, while allowing our best impulses to flourish and become a permanent part of our natural behavior toward one another.
Not being blessed with a 30 gallon black hat, I cannot speak with any authority. Unlike the ‘sages’ cited at the start of this essay, I do not have a direct line to G-d, and for all I know the Coronavirus may, indeed, be our collective punishment for of shaitels that are too long. Somehow I don’t think so.
What do you think?