With the shuttering of shuls and schools, Jewish life is now teetering at the edge. Simchas have been cancelled. Minyanim have been barred. Shivah houses happen in isolation. What does the future hold? When this horror eventually subsides, how will Judaism look? Will we still care about kaddish when it’s been missed for so long? Will anyone tune in to the Torah reading when we were forced to neglect its reading for weeks or months?
Story 1: The Prophet Eliyahu is standing atop Mt. Carmel armed for spiritual battle with the idolatrous prophets of the Baal. ‘Let us each pray to our god and see which is the true deity.’ The idolaters build an altar and Eliyahu builds an altar. They offer a sacrifice and he offers a sacrifice. They pray and beseech, all day long. But there is no response. Eliyahu then douses his sacrifice in water and prays to Hashem. A fire descends and consumes the holy offering. How could Eliyahu offer a sacrifice outside the Holy Temple? The exception, our Sages explain, is an emergency, when we rely on the dictum, “There is a time to act for Hashem.”
Story 2: The Holy Temple is on the verge of being destroyed by the Romans. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai manages to sneak out of the city, hidden in a coffin. The venerable sage is brought before General Vespasian for a private audience. What is his request of the Roman commander? ‘Give me Yavneh and its Sages.’ At that moment, he realizes that Jewish life is going to change and will need to adjust in ways previously unimaginable. The academy of Yavneh would lay the groundwork for the redaction of the Oral Law, which has sustained Jewish life for two millennia.
דְּאָמַר רַב יְהוּדָה אָמַר שְׁמוּאֵל: בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁתִּיקֵּן שְׁלֹמֹה עֵירוּבִין וּנְטִילַת יָדַיִם, יָצְתָה בַּת קוֹל וְאָמְרָה: ״בְּנִי אִם חָכַם לִבֶּךָ יִשְׂמַח לִבִּי גַם אָנִי״, ״חֲכַם בְּנִי וְשַׂמַּח לִבִּי וְאָשִׁיבָה חוֹרְפִי דָבָר״
Rav Yehuda quoted Shmuel: When Shlomo (King Solomon) instituted the ordinances of eruv and handwashing, a Divine Voice emerged and declared: “My son, if your heart is wise my heart will be glad, even mine . . . My son, be wise and make my heart glad, that I may respond to those who taunt me.”
Which two ordinances did Shlomo Hamelech enact? Eruv and handwashing. Biblically speaking, one may not transfer property from a private domain to a public domain on Shabbat. In order to avoid confusion, Shlomo instituted that property should only pass between a private domain and a semi-public domain (such as our suburban areas) with the prior sharing of food and some form of enclosure. The handwashing enactment was an edict that required the cleansing of one’s hands prior to partaking of any sacrificial food.
Rav Hai Gaon explains why these ordinances were not enacted prior to the time of King Shlomo. Until that time, the nation of Israel was in a state of war, as we battled for sovereignty over our Promised Land. The law is that soldiers are not bound by the laws of eruv and handwashing, because of the pressures presented by life in the trenches. Only once peace had prevailed was Shlomo able to institute these important injunctions.
We currently find ourselves living in devastating times for all humanity. Thousands have died. Hundreds of thousands are suffering from ill health. Businesses are collapsing. Children are out of school. People are out of work. So many find themselves quarantined and scared for the future.
With the shuttering of shuls and schools, Jewish life is now teetering at the edge as well. Simchas have been cancelled. Minyanim have been barred. Shivah houses happen in isolation. What does the future hold? When this horror eventually subsides, how will Judaism look? Will we still care about kaddish when it’s been missed for so long? Will anyone tune in to the Torah reading when we were forced to neglect its reading for weeks or months?
It’s time to recognize that we are in a warzone. In many ways, it’s even worse. No time in history have we been forced to completely shut down communal gatherings of Jewish life. Even in Roman Judea, Inquisition Spain, and Communist Russia, we were still able to gather together in secret, to daven and to learn. During those dark days, why didn’t they simply instruct people to practise their Judaism in solitude? Weren’t the rabbis of the time concerned for the risk to human life?
Of course they were. But they had no choice. As Rabbi Akiva famously said, ‘If I fail to gather my students in secret to learn Torah, we will be like fish taken out of water. We will die.’ So why don’t we have the same attitude? Why aren’t we defying the calls and gathering for Torah and communal prayer, despite the risks?
Because we have a secret weapon that they didn’t have. Today we have the internet. That’s why our rabbinic leadership today has the confidence to ask us to temporarily move Jewish life away from our communal brick and mortar buildings. The ability to offer Judaism online has made for a new reality. No longer is Judaism at risk of destruction, because we can still gather together virtually.
Our new way of doing Jewish must be embraced and celebrated. We must be prepared to take bold steps to keep Jewish life going. Just like the times of the Prophet Eliyahu, “there is a time to act for Hashem.” We have faith that the Almighty will redeem us from this situation very soon. That’s why our tradition has a mechanism for short-term emergency fixes. But in the meantime, just like the vision of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, the responsible approach is to make some major decisions, previously perhaps unthinkable. Hashem is now challenging us to step up and do our part to sustain Jewish life under these strange conditions.
At Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, we are doing our very best to keep the flame alive and doing our part to maintain and fortify traditional shul services. Are we doing things 100% absolutely perfectly? Not even close. But we’ve made some courageous decisions in order to keep our community in the game for as long as we can. That means being innovative, creative, and ever-positive.
We’ve been holding thrice daily virtual services. And our minyanim are bigger than ever. We gather together in tallis and tefillin and recite prayers as we would each morning, afternoon, and evening. I love my congregants, and I thank them for coming out each day to keep me inspired to pray and stay spiritually fit and healthy. Our daily routine keeps our souls in the light and we are motivating one another to ever greater spiritual heights.
We don’t say everything. The exclusively communal parts of davening we skip, including communal kaddishes and the chazan’s repetition. But we do permit mourners to recite kaddish. Does it have the same spiritual impact as if we were all standing together in shul as a bona fide minyan? I don’t know the answer to that. That’s for God to determine. We’re just doing the best we can with the hand we’ve been dealt.
What I do know is that the opportunity to recite kaddish is a glimmer of light and a consolation for the mourners. We have mourners who have just recently lost loved ones. We have mourners who had to sit shivah alone. And we have mourners who were not allowed to see their elderly loved ones during their final days in hospital. This is not a case of being meikel (lenient) in the laws of kaddish. We’re being machmir (stringent) in the laws of ahavat yisrael. We are doing our bit to spread the love and the light.
We’re also leining from the Torah three times a week (albeit now without aliyot) from a real Sefer Torah, Monday, Thursday, and Friday (in honour of Shabbat). Last Friday, we had a bar mitzvah boy read his maftir and haftorah (without brachot), while everyone else watched via livestream. The young man recited his daily Birchot HaTorah (Torah blessings) and dad recited the Baruch shepetarani (Exemption blessing). Can you imagine how relieved and uplifted that family felt!
These are some of the vital enactments we’ve put in place. And we hope and pray that very soon things will be back to the way they were. We’ll be praying together, singing together, learning together. Sitting together with our multigenerational families at the Pesach Seder.
But once again, we need to act responsibly if we want to keep the flame alive. That means finding creative ways to ensure that nobody is left alone for the Pesach seder, if we are still stuck in two weeks’ time. I wonder if there aren’t ways that we could harness the intersection of halacha and technology to bring everyone just a little bit closer. The Almighty has blessed us with miracles of human invention the likes of which our ancestors never dreamed of! Let’s put our heads together to figure out ways to make this a positively unforgettable Pesach!
Some people are worried about Torah changing to adapt to modern viewpoints. That’s not what this is about. This is a temporary fix, due to a halachic category called ‘nishtanu hativiim’. Sometimes nature around us changes and we adapt accordingly. In this instance, with God’s help, it will be a very short-term change in the laws of nature. We will be able to return to Jewish life the way we have practiced it for thousands of years. But in the unprecedented interim, we ask Heaven to inspire us with the tools to make our Judaism exciting, invigorating, and sustainable, despite the challenges.
Our Gemara quotes two verses from Proverbs to demonstrate how wise Shlomo’s edicts were. What was particularly clever about these two ordinances? The Chidushei HaRim explains that the purpose of an eruv is to bring people together, while handwashing keeps people apart. Spiritually speaking, the Chidushei HaRim means that handwashing denotes sanctification which separates the holy from the mundane.
Now more than ever, we recognize the importance of handwashing to keep us apart, right down to our tiniest microbial connections. True wisdom is the ability to connect people even when we are physically separated. May Hashem shine His countenance upon us and reunite us all very soon, physically and spiritually!