Pandemic Reflections

Rabbi Shmuel Hain has been asking his shul members to share reflections on our current situation. Here’s what I shared with our shul for שבת הגדול:

Perhaps it’s because I spent one of my formative years in Gruss Kollel in Jerusalem during a spate of bus bombingsand was influenced by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s moral pleading. Or perhaps it’s an instinctive aversion to claims of certainty. I’m not entirely sure why, but I find myself frustrated by the musar that some are directing toward the rest of us explaining the lessons that we should learn from the pandemic. Back in 1995, I remember Rav Lichtenstein angrily decrying the “so-called talmidei chachamim” who claim to know God’s will and why people were being killed. He referenced the Gemara’s comment in Sanhedrin about the Torah’s description of Bilaam as יודע דעת עליון, he who knows the wisdom of God.

השתא דעת בהמתו לא הוה ידע דעת עליון הוה ידע

Since Bilaam couldn’t understand the wisdom of his own donkey, how could he have understood the wisdom of God!? (Sanhedrin 105b)

Rav Lichtenstein also referenced the Gemara in Berachot that instructs us how we should respond to crisis and suffering.  

אם רואה אדם שיסורין באין עליו – יפשפש במעשיו

In the face of suffering, one should examine his actions. (Berachot 5a)

Rav Lichtenstein noted that that the Gemara says יפשפש במעשיו and not יפשפש במעשי חביריו. That is, one should examine his own actions, not the actions of others.*  In that sense, I suppose I can share two ways in which I’ve looked at my own thoughts and actions during this pandemic and begun to think differently.  

  1. Healthcare Professionals

I have not previously appreciated the heroism of doctors and nurses.  I always knew that some of our greatest Rishonim served as physicians. I assumed that there were historical or sociological reasons for that. I knew that the Torah gave permission to doctors to heal and that it may even be a mitzvah. But over the past few weeks, I’ve seen the selflessness of healthcare professionals and the heroic way in which so many of them have led us and saved so many lives at great risk to their own lives. I am now in awe of the deep religious calling it is to be a medical professional. I feel like I better understand how Rishonim may have seen the medical profession as an expression of their religious identity. I pledge to be more appreciative of the doctors and nurses and strive to be inspired by the religious depth of their service. 

  1. Individualism or Collectivism

The paradox here is that our isolation makes us feel our deep connectedness. All mankind is together in separation. Feeling strangely alone yet together, I thought of a book I read a number of years ago, “The Art of Choosing” by Sheena Iyengar.   Iyengar, a professor in Columbia Business School, describes the extent to which different cultures in different countries influence people’s decision making processes. 


She cites a fascinating study in which subjects were asked to look at the above picture for five seconds and then afterward asked to write about what they saw. The study was done in the US and in Japan. Surprisingly the results from the two countries were markedly different. The Americans paid more attention to the large fish, the “main characters” of the scene, while the Japanese described the scene more holistically. “Their varying descriptions were indicative of other differences in perception, particularly of who they believed to be the powerful agent. From the American viewpoint, the large fish were the crucial actors in the scene, influencing everything else around them.  For the Japanese though, it was the environment that dominated, interacting with and influencing the characters.” Iyengar explains, “ …individualist cultures naturally create and promote a strong narrative about the power of individual action to change the world: If people so choose, they can take control of their own lives and achieve anything…Collectivist cultures, by contrast encourage people to think about control in a more holistic way….The individual is by no means powerless, but he is just one player in the drama of life.” 

The tension between individualism and collectivism is something that as an educator, I spend a good amount of time and energy navigating. I want my students to be proud Jews. I want them to find deep meaning in their Judaism. I want them to “own” their Judaism. But I also want them to be a part of Klal Yisrael. I want them to know that בשבילי נברא עולם but I also want them to know that it’s not at all about them. 

When I pause and am מפשפש במעשי, I worry that I’ve emphasized too much the individualistic aspect of religious identity. The spread of the virus has slapped me across the face and shown me that we don’t live in our own worlds. We live in each other’s world. I must find my personal meaning by seeing the majesty and beauty of being part of something bigger and more important than myself.  I pledge to teach my students the primary importance of the klal, to teach them that they matter but that there is something much bigger that matters much more. 

* I wrote these thoughts on Friday but over shabbos I came across this beautiful piece by the Kozhnitzer Maggid (among many beautiful pieces) in עבודת ישראל in his section on שבת הגדול:

עבודת ישראל.jpeg


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