Covid-19 and the sins of the fathers

A unique opportunity to reassess our lives and the structures we hold dear

By David Levin

The period of the Yamim Nora’im (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), far from being stand-alone times for teshuva, come at the end of an extended period of teshuva starting all the way back in Tammuz with the fast that commenced the “Three Weeks”. The seven weeks immediately preceding Rosh Hashanah are known as “shiva d’nechamusa” – the seven weeks of nechama. For each of these seven weeks, the Haftara of the week does not deal specifically with the subject matter of the weekly parsha (as it does during the rest of the year), but rather with the theme of nechama. The word “nechama” is often translated as consolation. However, as explained by Rashi throughout his commentary on the Torah, it more accurately means “review” or “reconsideration”. Instead of consolation, the Haftarot are asking us to review – look again – at the root causes of the destruction commemorated during the period of the Three Weeks and, having discovered the root causes, to reconsider our approach to life so that such destruction need not be visited upon us again. This is the core of teshuva.

Similarly, the Three Weeks themselves hold teshuva as central to their aims. With regard to the two fasts that bracket the Three Weeks, 17 Tammuz, and 9 Av, the Rambam rules[1]:

“There are days upon which all of Israel fasts because of the calamities which occurred on them, in order to stir hearts and to open the pathways of teshuva. And this (the fast days) should serve as a reminder of our evil deeds, and the deeds of our forefathers which were (evil) like our deeds presently, to the extent that they caused for them and for us those calamities. (All of Israel fasts on these days because) in the remembrance of these things we will do teshuva and return to acting virtuously, as it is said (Vayikra 26) ‘Then they shall confess their sin and the sin of their forefathers.’”

We are quite accustomed to the concept of seeing these fast days as a time for self-reflection and rectification of our own misdeeds. However, the Rambam introduces a concept here which receives very little attention – the notion that the misdeeds of our forefathers and previous generations are, at least to some extent, responsible for calamities in which we find ourselves today. In fact, there is generally a deep-seated reluctance to ascribe any shortcomings to previous generations, let alone shortcomings that have led to the destruction of communities and holocausts over millennia. The idea that some of the practices handed down to us from previous generations may not only be less than optimal, but be considered outright sinful, is indeed a difficult pill to swallow. But this is precisely what the Rambam (based on the verse in the Torah which he quotes) calls upon us to consider in our performing teshuva – to question the assumptions underlying our modern society, many of which have turned into religious ideals. Our reluctance to confront directly inherited sins because of the respect and reverence with which previous generations are treated may in fact be a huge blind spot, leading either to cursory consideration of these problems, or to dismissing them as problems altogether.

Where does one begin to look when trying to consider the possibility of shortcomings and incorrect viewpoints inherited from our forebears? In some cases, the Torah made it clear how one was meant to approach suffering. One such example is the response to tzara’at, a collection of afflictions that used to afflict Jews in ancient times:

“These changes that are mentioned concerning (skin), garments and houses, which the Torah collectively calls “tzara’at”, are not natural phenomena. Rather, they were a wondrous sign for Israel in order to deter them from lashon hara. For one who speaks lashon hara would experience the (unnatural) changing of the walls of his house. If he did teshuva the house would be purified. (However), if he persisted with his wickedness until his house was demolished, then the leather vessels upon which he sits and lies (such as couches and chairs) would change (unnaturally). If he did teshuva, they would be purified. (However), if he persisted in his wickedness until they (the leather vessels) were incinerated, then the garments he wears would change (unnaturally). If he did teshuva, they would be purified. (However), if he persisted in his wickedness until they (his garments) were incinerated, then his skin would change (unnaturally) and he would be afflicted with tzara’at so that he would be publicly quarantined on his own so that he would no longer engage in the discourse of the wicked, namely scoffing and lashon hara.[2]

However, it is the exception, rather than the rule, that the Torah directly sets out how to interpret negative events happening to a person or a society. The Talmud[3] does provide general guidance for one experiencing suffering:

“Said Rava, and some say it was Rav Chisda: if a man sees that he is experiencing suffering, he should scrutinise his actions, as it is said[4], ‘Let us scrutinise and examine our ways, and then let us return to Hashem.’”

Other than for general injunctions relating to taking stock of one’s deeds and misdeeds, and doing teshuva, it is not clear that one would be able to deduce a clear relationship between the suffering one is experiencing and the misdeeds that brought it about. However, in the absence of such a clear link, it is worthwhile beginning the search in the areas of normal life that have suffered the most disruption. This is not because it is in any way clear that this is an area of shortcoming, but rather because the forced changes occasioned by COVID-19 allow for a point of view different to that one would have had under “normal” circumstances. In this sense, COVID-19 can be viewed as a unique opportunity to reconsider parts of our lives and society that may be ripe for change.

In the present instance, the aspects of Jewish life that have undergone the most radical changes since the onset of the virus are those relating to gatherings: primarily shuls, schools, and family celebrations. Such gatherings are particularly dangerous vectors for the spread of Covid and, other than for schools, have all almost entirely ceased. While the operation of schools has continued, it has been dramatically changed, with some schools ceasing live classes entirely, while others have moved a substantial proportion of classes online. Let us re-examine these aspects of Jewish life anew, from our new vantage points, to see if perhaps we, or our forefathers, have cemented certain approaches that would be worthwhile to reconsider.

Shuls and minyanim

Many have felt the loss from the closure of shuls and the cessation of minyanim particularly acutely. Davening at home for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will be an unwelcome, virtually-unimaginable, first-time experience for most of the community. What a stark difference when compared to the packed shuls we have always known! But if we choose to take advantage of the current situation, perhaps we will see that davening at home might not be all bad, and some of the lessons we have learned, and will learn, from davening at home may be worthwhile improvements to take back to davening at shul when they resume minyanim again.

In the first chapter of Yeshayahu, the Navi (Prophet) reports Hashem’s crushing message to Israel[5]:

“And when you lift up your hands (in prayer), I will avert my eyes from you; even though you pray at length, I am not listening…”

Why would Hashem refuse to listen to our prayers? There are several reasons. Perhaps it may be because we seldom do teshuva, even for sins and character flaws we know we have in our hands. This is how the Rambam understands this verse when he says[6]:

“How lofty is teshuva! Before (one did teshuva) one was separated from Hashem, the G-d of Israel, as it is said ‘Your iniquities separated you from your G-d’; one cried out and was not answered, as it is said, ‘Even though you pray at length, I am not listening…’”

Or perhaps we have turned our davening into a burden, which obligation we discharge by rote and are glad to be done with. How many times have we heard ourselves say “I have to daven mincha now”? That may sound innocent enough, until we note the words “have to”. Not “have the privilege to”; not “want to”; but “have to”. However, according to many halachic opinions, such an attitude may entirely disqualify davening. It is ruled in the Shulchan Aruch[7]:

“One much pray in a supplicatory way, like one who is destitute going begging from door to door; and it should not appear as if (his prayer) is a burden with which he wants to be done.”

Commenting on this, the Bei’ur Halacha states:

“How exceedingly must one be careful with this, because there are many poskim who (disqualify such prayer and therefore) require one to repeat one’s prayer…”

Although the Bei’ur Halacha concludes that one should not repeat one’s davening if performed in such a way, this is only because of the concern of an unnecessary bracha according to those opinions who contend that one would, after the fact, have discharged one’s obligation of prayer in such a poor way. The commentary, Olat Tamid, on this halacha, defines praying “as if it is a burden” as follows:

“That he prays (only) because of the obligation (to pray), and had he not been obligated to pray, he would not have prayed.”

How open and responsive would we be to a poor person knocking on our doors, babbling some request for charity in an absentminded manner, only because someone told him he “had to” knock on our door?

Or perhaps it might be that we find ourselves rushing through our prayers to keep up with the chazzan. Despite the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch[8] that:

“It is better to have fewer supplications with focus than to say more without focus”

When we are at shul, we somehow feel compelled to say everything, even though that requires us to compromise massively on the quality of our davening.

Despite all of these shortcomings, one might argue that the davening we do in shul is nevertheless better than any davening we might do at home, because at shul we achieve tefillah b’tzibur – prayer with a community. However, is this in fact the case? Clearly, in order for it to be tefillah b’tzibur, one requires a tzibbur. Many mistakenly have the belief that a tzibbur is any group of 10 adult males. However, this is in fact the definition of a minyan, and not a tzibbur. What then, exactly, is a tzibbur? In the introduction to his classical work of responsa[9], Ein Yitzchak, the Kovno Rav, Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector defines a tzibbur, (based on several verses from Tanach and passages from the Talmud) as a group:

“at the level where each member loves his fellow…and as long as there is not peace between one and others, (the group) does not have the status of a tzibbur.”

At a basic level, are we at peace with everyone at shul? Is it not tragic that no word in English fully captures the venom and hatred embodied in the Yiddish word “farribel”? But even if we can truly say we are at peace with everyone at shul, do we really love everyone at shul? Do we even know everyone at shul? How is such love possible in a “minyan factory”?

It follows from the earlier discussion about the validity of davening, that the way davening happens at shul might not satisfy the definition of “tefillah”. Now we see that it also might not satisfy the definition of “b’tzibbur”.

As such, should the circumstance arise that this year we are forced to daven at home – not rushed, and surrounded by people we love – it might be that this is not something to bemoan and dread. Perhaps it might be an opportunity to cherish.

Schools and education

It has been apparent for many years that education has been in crisis, both with regard to schools as well as yeshivot and kollels. At the school level, there is a very real sense that, for many (most?) education has become utilitarian where subjects are taught and studied, not for their inherent beauty, but purely because they are useful in some other way. For example, a student may study physics, not because it is worthwhile in its own right, but because a good mark will allow entry to a prestigious university programme. Studying the subjects at a university programme may be pursued, not because of the inherent aesthetic benefit of the material, but because it will improve one’s chances of attaining better employment. Unfortunately, even Torah studies may be subject to similar utilitarian approaches. This is not new. Already in the 1500s, the Maharal of Prague complained bitterly about those parents who pushed their children to learn more advanced material so that they would attain a reputation as a genius. This was done at the expense of skipping more foundational material and thereby compromising the child’s ability to learn for the remainder of his life.

The real message that comes from a utilitarian approach to studies is that, whatever the subject is, it is not inherently valuable in its own right and is only valuable because of the “because”: because of the prestige/university programme/employment, etc. Unfortunately, few subjects these days are taught “just because”: just because it is beautiful in its own right. The tragic consequence of this is that few children love school, or any particular subject at school. Try it – ask your children if they love school and which of their subjects, if any, they love. The problem with this is that, whether one is talking about Torah subjects or non-Torah subjects, unless one loves learning, all learning will stop when there is no longer a clear utilitarian benefit. Love is what prompts a lifelong drive to stay connected with something. This is what Rashi explains on the verse from the Shema:

“And you shall love Hashem, your G-d…”

“Carry out your deeds with love. One cannot compare one who acts out of love to one who acts out of fear (defined elsewhere as “to avoid punishment or to receive reward”). One who serves by his master out of fear, when it becomes too burdensome to him, he will desert his master and go on his way.”

A teacher who loves and appreciates his or her subject is beyond value – in addition to teaching the subject material, such a teacher conveys a love for the subject. Such teachers almost never mention the utilitarian value of the subject – they focus rather on the beauty of the subject and how fascinating it is. This leads directly to students who will continue to study for life, and who will, therefore, grow great in whatever subjects to which they choose to dedicate their lives.

In addition to the problem of not cultivating love of learning, it is not clear that our school systems are producing students who are even well-drilled and learned in their subject material. In no place is this clearer than in the Torah subjects – despite the fact that one often hears self-congratulatory comments about how there have never been more people “in learning” than in the present, we are forced to concede that this has not resulted in a proportionate increase in truly great rabbinic scholars emerging. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that we have far fewer genuinely great rabbinic scholars today than in previous generations. Despite the fact that there are several yeshivot in Israel and the US today that, individually, count more students than were collectively in all the yeshivot of Lithuania at its peak, our yeshivot and kollels are not producing a single person anywhere close to the stature or Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, Rav Mordechai Gifter, or the Chazon Ish (to name but a few).

In addition to this, it is a worldwide phenomenon that Jewish schooling is prohibitively expensive, and has driven (and continues to drive) countless families into poverty. It would be questionable if it would be worthwhile fighting for such an unsustainable system if the education system was being successful. But in light of the above failures to fulfil what could be argued are the core functions of an education system, it becomes clear that this system, in its current form, is ripe for change.

A unique opportunity

The COVID-19 pandemic is an upheaval of the type that humanity seldom faces. It is terrible in its reach and impact on the lives of everyone alive today. There is a good chance it will be with us for a long time still. It constitutes a challenge unprecedented in our lifetimes. It is something that no-doubt most would have wished not to have happened.

But, insofar that it has happened and we are forced to live our lives in ways we would not have chosen for ourselves, we are presented with a range of opportunities to reassess our lives and the structures we hold to be dear and important. It would be genuinely tragic if we were to endure all the hardship brought about by the pandemic while squandering the opportunity to reconsider and re-evaluate aspects of our lives that, with a little thought and honesty, could be changed to transform our lives and the lives of everyone we know and love.

  1. Hilchot Ta’aniyot 5:1
  2. Rambam: Hilchot Tum’at tzara’at 16:10
  3. Brachot 5a
  4. Eichah 3:40
  5. Yeshayahu 1:15
  6. Hilchot Teshuva 7:7
  7. Orach Chayim 98:3
  8. Orach Chayim 1:4
  9. Introduction, paragraph 35

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