B”H Jerusalem 12 Nissan 5780 / April 6, 2020
Posted by Avraham ben Yaakov
Pesach Under Siege
B”H Jerusalem 12 Nissan 5780 / April 6, 2020
I can only hope this message will find you safe and well even as the world reels in face of the “Corona” pandemic. Could we have imagined any of this just six weeks ago? “Many are the thoughts in the heart of man, but it is G-d's counsel that shall stand” (Proverbs 19:21).
Here in Jerusalem my wife and I, like everyone else, are currently strictly confined to our homes, with the lockdown in our neighborhood, the famous “ultra-orthodox” Meah Shearim district, being strictly enforced on the streets by riot police and soldiers who will not permit groups to gather.
My heart is heavy over the tragic losses to this plague in communities across the world, over the many who are sick and suffering, including friends and acquaintances, all of whom need our prayers, and over the plight of all who have been stricken by the economic and other ramifications of a situation that shows few signs of easing for a long time to come.
Personally, I can only give thanks to G-d for His unceasing kindnesses to me until today. I received my own major “wakeup call” less than two years ago, when I was diagnosed with a malignant abdominal cancer necessitating an emergency operation and subsequent chemotherapy that left me weak and depleted. Not only was I forced to practice “social distancing” long before it became today's norm. I also had to go deep inside myself and confront numerous issues and personal flaws I had previously allowed to fester. Since then I have made major changes in my lifestyle and try to follow a careful program of diet and nutrition combined with 4-5 half-hour sessions per week of aerobic Chassidic dance. All this has, thank G-d, left me feeling very well. At this moment we have ample supplies of food and water, and we have electricity, phone and Internet. I can study Torah and do my work as usual, so the current closure does not affect me too much, since in any case I normally spend most of my time either at home or in my nearby Beit-Midrash/office.
I can also only be thankful that over 40 years ago G-d brought me to the teachings of Rabbi Nachman, which since then have been my principal lifeline and an unfailing source of inspiration. My initial puzzlement over his diatribes against doctors and medicine led me to research his teachings about the Torah healing pathway, culminating in my full-length study, “The Wings of the Sun: Traditional Jewish Healing in Theory and Practice”. The entire book is available unabridged online for free reading and download at https://www.azamra.org/spirit/wings.php . I will not speculate as to what Rabbi Nachman might have said about the Corona virus (except to keep as far away as you possibly can from any exposure to infection). I do find that all his teachings in general, and specifically those dealing with illnesses, their causes and healing, provide a fine perspective from which to view the present situation and to better understand both its spiritual dimensions and the meaning of the frantic scramble with which all humanity, including world organizations, governments, the medical profession, the pharmaceutical industry and many others are trying to cope and/or cash in.
For you and me and all the others facing such great changes in our lives and in the world around us now and for the foreseeable future, Rabbi Nachman's teachings on faith, prayer and joy have never been timelier. A treasury of his most inspiring teachings, sayings, parables and stories, “The Essential Rabbi Nachman”, is also available unabridged online for free online reading and download at https://www.azamra.org/spirit/essential.php .
“The roads of Zion are in mourning”
As I write to you now, all Meah Shearim (where I live) together with the adjacent Geulah district have been put under an even stricter lockdown than before as part of Israel's efforts to close off the major epicenters of infection in the country. The streets are all but deserted except for police patrols and a few individuals running urgent errands. Confined to their homes, many are able to call food stores for delivery of their Pesach needs to their door. Inside, people are at the height of their pre- Pesach cleaning at the same time as little children need to be kept amused and occupied while cooped up at home or at best on balconies.
The town is eerie, like a ghost town. A heavy cloud rests upon all who grasp the gravity of the situation, like uneasy children under reprimand from a stern-faced parent.
Normally, in the final days before Pesach, the shopping streets of Meah Shearim and Geulah would be thronged with bustling crowds buying foods, household utensils, new clothes, shoes etc. in honor of the great Festival of Freedom.
But today, “The roads of Zion are in mourning without those coming for the festival, all her gates are deserted…” (Eichah-Lamentations 1:4).
Among all the different messages being heard from rabbis across the world, a group of prominent Israeli rabbis, members of “The Re-Established Jewish Sanhedrin” under the presidency of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz ( http://www.thesanhedrin.org/en/index.php/The_Re-established_Jewish_Sanhedrin ) are saying it is no coincidence that the Corona plague is afflicting the entire world precisely as Pesach, the first Pilgrim Festival of the Torah calendar, approaches.
The Torah ordains that on the 14 th of Nissan, the eve of Pesach, which this year falls this coming Wednesday April 8, all the Children of Israel must bring their Pesach lambs or kid goats to Jerusalem for our principal and defining national sacrifice and celebration of Freedom. In theory there is no halachic objection to offering the sacrifice on the site of the Holy Temple on Mount Moriah even when, as today, no Temple structure is standing. However, the “powers that be”, the Waqf (Moslem “religious” police on the Temple Mount), menacing Arab rioters, the Israeli national police and government authorities, the miniature king of Jordan and Israel's jester “Supreme Court” have every year prevented even its symbolic reenactment on behalf of all Israel.
Spokesperson of the Sanhedrin, Rabbi Professor Hillel Weiss, is now publicly calling upon U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin to use their influence to enable a symbolic Pesach Sacrifice on behalf of all Israel in its proper place on the Temple Mount according to all the laws relating to the offering of this sacrifice at a time when the priests and the people have not been able to purify from defilement through contact with the dead owing to the absence of the ashes of the Red Heifer.
Rabbi Weiss and his colleagues are suggesting that only the restoration of the Temple sacrifice can possibly save the world from the Corona epidemic, just as the sacrifice of King David on that very site, which was to become the site of the Temple Altar, stalled the deadly plague that struck in his time, as narrated in II Samuel chapter 24. The rabbis of the Sanhedrin had in any case as in past years already planned a symbolic educational re-enactment of the Pesach sacrifice on a site facing the Temple Mount and had received all the necessary Jerusalem municipality, police and veterinary permits. All that is lacking is top-level Israeli government approval to offer the sacrifice on the Temple Mount itself.
It is not for me to agree or disagree with the rabbis of the Sanhedrin! I can only hope they are right. In the words of Rabbi Nachman: “It's better to be a fool who believes in everything than to be so clever that you do not believe in anything. If you believe in everything, some of what you believe may be foolish but you will also believe in the truth. But when a person is too clever and does not want to believe in anything, he may begin by ridiculing falsehood and folly, but he can easily end up so skeptical of everything that he even denies the truth.” (Sichot Haran #103)
The Sanhedrin's end times, messianic activities are viewed by most of “mainstream” Israel as well as by many staunchly “orthodox” Jews across the world to be on the fringe or way beyond. Yet they certainly make a welcome relief from the current 24/7 obsession with the Coronavirus and its effects in all the mainstream media, arousing waves of fear, panic and hysteria among the general public instead of the sober civic responsibility that is needed.
The media are daily blazoning all the up-to-the-minute figures of deaths and infections and the latest “expert” assessments of what may lie in store. Some blame China, whether because of the consumption of bats by humans or because someone in a secret biological warfare research lab mistakenly or possibly even deliberately let the genie out of the bottle to launch this world epidemic. (It is noteworthy that staunch crypto-Malthusians among the world's elite seem not to be opposed to such a pandemic as a way of controlling the world's population, so long as they themselves are not infected.) People are demanding answers: Why was nobody prepared? Why were governments late and bumbling in their response? Politicians are exploiting the situation for partisan purposes in order to take shots at their opponents. Meanwhile all kinds of vultures hover around, seeking to take advantage of the situation, such as those with insider information who sold shares days before the stock market crash, the banks that will profit from government loans to struggling businesses, and the big pharma companies that will profit from the anxiously awaited Covid-19 medications and vaccines and those of its likely future mutations and successors. Nobody knows what effects the likely short- or long-term economic crash and ensuing recession will have on you and me, let alone the new levels of government invasion into our civil liberties and private lives with phone-tracking of our movements and official police and army enforced lockdowns whenever our rulers see fit.
It took Pharaoh's magicians until the third of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, that of the Lice, to realize and tell him: “'This is the finger of G-d.' But Pharaoh's heart stiffened and he would not heed them, as the Lord had spoken.” ( Exodus 8:15).
I can think of many moral reasons why today's world, racing after wealth, consumption, entertainment, vacations and all the pleasures of the flesh, might have been stricken (may G-d protect us). How do our culture's voracity, arrogance, immorality, gross language, rampant crime, violence murder and terror, tolerated, encouraged and even glorified by profit-hungry media, conceited judges, corrupt police, etc. rank with those in ancient Sodom, Egypt, Nineveh, Babylon, Athens, Rome and other fallen civilizations?
It would be invidious to speculate on why the divine wrath has specifically struck those who have succumbed. Some of the worst affected have been in the “ultra-orthodox” Jewish communities of Israel, Europe and America. G-d alone knows why warnings were ignored by leaders and members of these communities until it was too late. Our sages taught that plague does not discriminate between the righteous and the not-so-righteous. The catastrophic loss of numerous prominent rabbis and righteous Jews must in itself awaken us to sober inner self-reckoning at the same time as we take every possible precaution to keep ourselves safe.
Today we can all see that as predicted in the Talmud at the end of days: “We have none to rely upon except our Father in Heaven” (Bavli Sotah 49b).
Why is this year different from all other years?
Many are stricken and suffering physically from the Corona virus; others are working long hours trying to treat and care for them. Untold others are without employment and without resources. Lives have been disrupted, plans and hopes dashed.
At the same time, I know of families under lockdown for weeks now in small, crowded homes who are showing remarkable inventiveness and resourcefulness in finding ways to exploit the situation for good. Some have designated a room as a place for prayer and Torah study. Parents have become teachers of their own children, which can be challenging but tremendously rewarding. They have learned to employ their children usefully in ways beneficial to all instead of leaving them to idle their time away. Where parents had previously found it difficult not to indulge children exposed on all sides to today's instant-everything-throwaway culture, they are now watching the likelihood of resources becoming ever scantier and are relearning the frugal habits of our forebears. Some who are in forced isolation for long periods are discovering many new aspects of life, hard as these lessons are.
In Israel's Song of the Sea, sung to G-d after their redemption from the waters that drowned the Egyptians, they praise Him thus: “ Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power, Your right hand, O Lord, shatters the foe! ” (Exodus 15:6). The repetition of the phrase, “Your right hand,” is interpreted to indicate that in ONE AND THE SAME ACT the Holy One, blessed-be-He, in His Kindness – signified by His “right hand” – simultaneously performs kindness and executes judgment
For all who have EMUNAH, Faith in the G-d of Truth and Justice, we must see in the worldwide effects of this pandemic on so many different levels, the Supreme Power of the One G-d. Each and every one of us should seek to discern a personal message in this global chastisement.
Whether we will be able to celebrate the coming Pesach Seder Night with one or more family members or friends, or whether we will have to celebrate alone, this will certainly be a unique Seder, and we should take the opportunity to consider what spiritual lessons we can learn. If we cannot offer the Pesach sacrifice in the Temple and feast on its tender meat with our families, we can at least try to turn our homes into a mini-Temple to the One G-d, just as our forefathers in Egypt were confined to their homes on the night of the Fifteenth of Nissan, the night of the Redemption, in order to avoid the Destroyer. They had to eat the Pesach lamb there in the home, each group in their own mini-Temple, as they faced a completely uncertain future from tomorrow morning, going out into the Wilderness on a journey to a nebulous Promised Land of Milk and Honey.
This year when we come to the central section of the Pesach Haggadah describing the Ten Plagues that finally forced Pharaoh to send Israel into freedom, we should, in face of Corona and its effects, have a much greater ability to imagine the pandemonium that broke out among the Egyptians and brought them to their knees.
One of my favorite passages in the Midrash is found in the Tanna d'vei Eliyahu in the name of Elijah the Prophet (and regretfully I do not have the exact source to hand at present). Elijah asks by what merit Israel were redeemed from their servitude in Egypt when they had sunk to such a low level and had no Mitzvot as yet. He answers that on the threshold of the Redemption, there was a tiny movement – a slight shift, a thought or a feeling – in the heart of each and every one of the Children of Israel, that he or she CARES about the other, about all our brothers and sisters. Since this was hidden in the heart of each one, nobody on the outside saw it. But G-d saw it and G-d knew. And this was the merit through which He redeemed Israel, brought them out of Egypt and gave us the Torah.
As we enter a Pesach celebration that is likely to be most unique, my prayer is that we should be worthy to see in our days the realization of the prophecy of Joel (3:1).
“After that, I will pour out My spirit on all flesh; Your sons and daughters shall prophesy; Your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions…”
Chag Pesach Kasher VeSame'ach! Have a pure and joyous Pesach!
Shalom and blessings from Yerushalayim!
Avraham ben Yaakov
© Avraham ben Yaakov 5780 / 2020. All rights reserved.