As we all devote ourselves to performing the missions assigned to us in the war against Covid-19, it is extraordinary to witness the united efforts being made to save others.
Amazingly, representatives of government at all levels, with a minimum of partisanship and religious leaders on a non-denominational basis have joined together to urge us to comply with CDC instructions and local restrictions, in order to save those most at risk. Public gatherings at religious services are to be eschewed because the overarching priority is to do everything possible to save lives. Prayer at home, especially at the same time, has become the new norm during this period of all out war against the invisible virus that is the enemy of all mankind. Rest assured G-d hears our collective prayers, even if we are not all in the same place together. Many sacrifices are being made to assure that those most at risk are safe, especially by our heroic healthcare professionals. There are also acts of kindness, charity and just plain goodness by so many. Economic concerns are secondary, as we put people and health first.
It was only a very short time ago that partisan bickering held sway and Congress was virtually deadlocked. It’s not a new condition. As Rabbi Yonasan Eybeshitz[i] so eloquently pointed out as to Biblical Joseph and his brothers[ii], instead of sitting together, speaking and remonstrating with each other and eventually making some sort of peace with one another, they refrained from talking and listening to each other. In essence, like so many today, they demonized each other. It was tragic then and it is every bit as unfortunate when it occurs today. Moreover, as the Talmud[iii] so poignantly concludes, the unintended consequences may be catastrophic. It was this kind of sordid behavior that was one of the major causes of the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile.
The Mishna[iv] records Hillel’s sage counsel not to separate from the community, rely just on your own judgment or ever be judgmental about another person. To put this in perspective, the Talmud[v] exquisitely records that despite the profound and fundamental disagreements between members of the Schools of Hillel and Shamai, they did not refrain from marrying into one another’s families. There’s one big tent, which accommodates so many different points of views.
The Netziv[vi] advises that suspecting someone because they act differently was the source of the separation among people that doomed the Second Temple. It appears this non-constructive attitude continues to dog us even today. There is no excuse for this kind of behavior. It matters not that the person does this out of a sense of extreme religious piety or socially righteous indignation. The result is the same; it undermines the social cohesion of society and brings civilization to ruin.
New ideas, creative thinking and unique perspectives may lead to innovation, which is fundamental to the development process. However, it is important to remember that it takes sign-on to bring a thought to fruition. This doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree on everything. Indeed, as the Talmud[vii] points out in a capital case, if all the judges unanimously agree on a finding of guilty, then the verdict is thrown out. The matter could not have been fully and properly analyzed unless there was some dissenting point of view. Nevertheless, after a thorough examination of the matter and registering of a variety of opinions, the majority ruled. Preserving the sanctity of the process was crucial and individual judges were prohibited from revealing how they each voted[viii].
Good governance requires an open process where everyone is able honestly to express his and her individual points of views. However, it also requires coming together to make needed compromises and accommodations and reaching agreement on a solution. Good leadership provides a conducive environment that fosters open and respectful discussions, forthright expression of honest views, questioning of positions, presentations of factual proofs and due deliberation. Great leadership is able to fashion a consensus in favor of the ultimate decision and achieve sign-on by most, if not all, participants in the process. This is essential, because the next step is effectuating the decision and more importantly achieving the intended result. This typically requires pooling of resources and talents, adaptability, improvisation and initiative, which are critical ingredients in accomplishing goals. This is not easily achieved unless everyone is faithfully devoted to achieving the result.
Thankfully, this is what happened, last week, in Congress. For the most part the overwhelming majority worked together on a non-partisan basis and with the President. Despite a few raucous dissenters, virtually everyone came together to accomplish an extraordinary measure, signed into law by the President on Friday, to help those in need. It is hard not to recognize the role of divine providence guiding us in this worldwide health emergency.
This is no local phenomenon. It is happening all over the world. Indeed, last week also brought good news in Israel about Benny Gantz joining with Bibi Netanyahu and putting aside partisan differences. They are set to form what amounts to a national unity government in light of the Covid-19 health crises. After three successive bitter attempts at elections to solve the matter of who would govern, finally sanity prevailed. This was almost unimaginable even just a few weeks ago.
Uniting humanity in pursuit of a higher cause is one of the most powerful spiritual forces in the universe. The power of unity to invoke divine providence is so great that the Talmud[ix] and Midrash[x] speak of G-d protecting even idolaters who are unified and at peace together.
We are united because we care. It is unprecedented that most of the world is putting their economic and other interests on hold in order to protect the elderly and others most at risk. Has there been another time in history when almost everyone joined together to protect the weakest in our society, no matter the cost? It is miraculous.
As we continue to wage war on Covid-19, let’s takes this important lesson to heart. It doesn’t matter what religion or level of observance. It doesn’t matter what political party a person identifies with, ideology someone might profess or their economic or social circumstances. We’re all in this together. Our greatest strength is unifying around the higher purpose of saving others.
As we celebrate Passover let’s remember how the miraculous Exodus was initially precipitated. It all began one day when the Jewish slaves in Egypt, were afforded some time off to mark the death of the Egyptian Pharaoh. They finally had a moment to groan[xi] and cry out because of the crushing burden of their bondage. They may not have expressly appealed to G-d for help; but their sighs were heard by G-d, as if they were prayer[xii]. It was this collective groan[xiii], which precipitated the ultimate redemption from slavery in Egypt.
As we conduct the Seder let’s recall how it was originally observed. The Jewish people were quarantined in their homes as the Tenth Plague raged around them. There was a very real fear that a pogrom might break out[xiv], had the Exodus not timely occurred. The tension was further enhanced by the commandment that the blood of this original Passover offering was to be used to mark the lintel and doorposts of each Jewish home. What an inviting target? Nevertheless, the Jewish people were commanded by G-d to set themselves apart from the prevailing mores and customs, put themselves at risk and trust in G-d to deliver them[xv].
In our times, the Seder is often associated with luxurious surroundings, bountiful food and good wine; but this has not always been the case. It was not so long ago that Jews in the Nazi concentration camps celebrated Passover, even as they were starved, beaten and all but worked to death. There are reports of those who bravely conducted a Seder in the camps, by each reciting those parts of the Haggadah they remembered. There was no food, let alone Matzo to eat. How to explain that kind of grit and determination to carry on an ancient tradition that seemed so remote from their circumstances? How were they able to sing about the miraculous redemption from Egypt, despite being slave laborers and in the face of near certain death?
The Passover Seder described in the Haggadah was also likely observed under exceedingly dire circumstances. It is reported to have occurred during the time of the Hadrianic persecutions. Circumcisions and the study of the Torah had been outlawed[xvi]. The Seder probably occurred just prior to the outbreak of the Bar Kochba revolt.
Perhaps, this year, we may have to observe the Seder like the original one in Egypt, secluded at home and in quarantine. Is it any wonder that we hark back to that original miraculous Exodus, as a harbinger of the future ultimate redemption[xvii]? We pray G-d will redeem us again just like that first time. Rest assured our collective voices will be heard by G-d, as if we were all together at one Seder.
Our traditional approach to the observance and celebration of Passover and the Seder has served the Jewish people well for thousands of years. We may not be able personally to welcome guests to be a part of the shared Seder experience; but we can still provide for them and those in need. This is one of those opportunities for genuine Gemillat Chesed. We no longer have the Temple and sacrifices to offer for atonement. Instead, As Avot D’Rabbi Natan[xviii] reports Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai said to Rabbi Yehoshua, we have Gemillat Chesed, which serves the same purpose.
The Talmud[xix] expresses a similar concept in more visual terms. It states that so long as the Temple stood, the sacrificial Altar facilitated atonement for the Jewish people. Now, a person’s dining table has taken the place of the altar in the Temple and it provides atonement through the Mitzvah of feeding the poor[xx] or guests[xxi].
We can fulfill this fundamental aspect of our Jewish tradition[xxii] by making sure everyone is fed and adequately provisioned to observe the Seder and Passover holiday, in their homes. Spread the good cheer and joyful experience of Passover and the Seder, even if we have to share it remotely this year.
We are united in this observance because we care about the health and safety of our fellow men and women. May G-d protect us and keep us safe and well and inspire those working on a cure and vaccine to succeed. May we merit the ultimate redemption.
[i] An 18th Century Talmudic and Halachic authority, in his Tiferet Yonatan commentary on Genesis, Parshat Vayeshav (Verse 37:4), at page 73.
[ii] Genesis 37:4.
[iii] See BT Yoma 9b, Gittin 55b-56a and Shabbat 119b.
[iv] Avot 2:4.
[v] JT Kiddushin 1:1 (page 4a) and Yevamot 1:6 (page 8b).
[vi] Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, the noted 19th century sage and dean of the Volozhin Yeshiva, in his Haemek Davar commentary on the Bible, Introduction to Genesis 3.
[vii] BT Sanhedrin 17a.
[viii] BT Sanhedrin 29a.
[ix] See Small Tractate Derech Eretz Zuta 9:2. See also BT Yavamot 98a and JT Challot 11a
[x] See Sifrei Bamidbar 42:2; Midrash Tanchuma Tzav 7:1 and Shoftim 18:1; Bereishit Rabbah 38:6; Midrash Aggadah, Leviticus 7:12:5; and Otzar Midrashim, Midrash Gadol u’Gedolah 36.
[xi] Exodus 2:23.
[xii] Ibid and see Ohr Hachaim and Chizkuni commentaries on the verse.
[xiii] Exodus 6:5 and see Rashi and Sforno commentaries thereon.
[xiv] See Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 16:3.
[xv] Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed 3:46.
[xvi] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Brachot, at page 61b and Midrash Bereishit Rabbati, Parshat Lech Lecha 17:1. See also Historia Augusta, Hadrianus 14.2, The Legislation of Hadrian and Antonius Pious against Circumcision, by E. Mary Smallwood and Justinian’s Digest XLVIII, Tit. 8. Concerning the Cornelian law relating to assassins and poisoners, Section 4. Ulpianus, On the Duties of Proconsul, Book VII. However, it should be noted that there was also an exception for Jews set forth in provision 11. Modestinus, Rules, Book VI, below in the same section of Justinian’s Digest. This provision may have either been suspended at the time or been a later addition to the laws. As Edward Gibbons reports in Chapter 16 of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, at page 206, Antonius the Pious, who reigned after Hadrian, once more granted the Jews permission to circumcise their children. Reference should also be made to BT Yevamot 72a and Tosefta Shabbos 16:6, which note that many were circumcised during the time of Bar Kochba.
[xvii] As we say in the Nusach Sfard version of Kedusha in Shabbat Musaf, the final redemption (in Messianic times) will be like the first one (from Egypt).
[xviii] Avot D’Rabbi Natan 4:5.
[xix] See BT Brachot 55a; Chagigah 27a; and Menachot 97a.
[xx] See Maharsha commentary on BT Brachot 55a.
[xxi] See Rashi and Tosafot commentary on BT Menachot 97a.
[xxii] BT Shabbat 127a.