Rabbi Ariel Tal
Insights into Judaism from COVID-19
“In all of your ways you shall know Him (God)” - is one of the key verses in all of the Tanach. Rabbi Avraham HaKohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, explains that this verse teaches us that one must learn from every experience and understand how it can connect them to Judaism and the Torah. In the spirit of this concept, I would like to shed some light into the insights that I have personally learned about Judaism and the mitzvot from our COVID-19 new reality.
#1: What is the next world (Olam Haba)?
Olam Haba, the World to Come, or the World of Neshamot (Souls), is the place where the Neshama goes after it leaves the body in this world. What is the actual difference, from the Neshama’s perspective, between this world and the next world? In one word, the answer is growth. The secret of this world is that every person has the capability to advance themselves spiritually, a uniquely human trait. The descriptions in Kabbalistic literature is that the next world is a static and frozen reality. There is no growth in the next world, rather whatever spiritual level a person attains in this world will be their permanent reality in the next world. As an analogy, suppose one brought a small water dipper to the next world, which has an endless fountain of water flowing. You can only enjoy the water (a parable for spiritual closeness to Hashem) as much as your vessel will hold; so too one can only be as close to Hashem in the next world as enabled by the refinement of their spiritual self in this world. There are famous stories in the Talmud of great Tannaic Sages, like Rabbi Judah the Prince, who said upon their death bed that they would do anything just to do another mitzvah, and continue their spiritual growth, knowing that the next world is reality frozen in time.
In COVID-19 lock down, our realities are frozen in time as well. Everyone had to choose their bubble and life essentially came to a halt for a few weeks. Indeed many people continued to work, study, and even socialize from home, but it was a different reality. Seder night might be when it hit me most - who was in our bubble? My family. Some people had the good fortune of having family around them, some did not, others were alone in their bubble. Everyone had a moment where reality froze and whatever they had created in this world became their constant reality for a few weeks. The lock down gives us an opportunity to evaluate what goals we have yet to achieve and what goals we have successfully accomplished. It may be the closest we ever get to understanding reality in the next world.
Shabbat is also called “Me’eyin Olam Haba” or similar to the next world. Shabbat required preparation during the days leading up to it - cooking, setting the house up, inviting guests, and completing work and travel obligations. Once Shabbat enters, all creative work must stop and whatever reality you have created for yourself up to that moment will be your constant reality for the next 25 hours. In COVID-19 this reality is heightened, and a good reminder that we must embrace every moment in this world and the importance of maintaining emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth in our lives.
#2: Rabbinic Prohibitions (Distancing one from transgression)
This one may be harder to wrap ones’ head around, but the concept is very simple, and implemented very well in New Zealand, for example. There are many Biblical prohibitions as part of the 613 mitzvot, and the Sages created a series of Rabbinic prohibitions on top of the Biblical prohibitions, in order to distance us from possible transgression. I am examining this angle from the perspective of the written Halacha, not the Halachic practice of Jews around the world.
The classic example of Rabbinic prohibition is picking up a pen on Shabbat. The Biblical prohibition is not writing on Shabbat, and the Sages made a “gezeira” or a decree to not even pick up the pen on Shabbat, coining the term “muktze” מוקצה. There are several forms of muktze, all of them Rabbinic prohibitions. However, the Rabbis knew that if one picks up a pen, inevitably some of those people will end up writing it.
Breaking Shabbat is a Biblical prohibition and an action that may harm one’s spiritual health. Since the Rabbinic authorities take keeping mitzvot seriously, they made “halachic distancing” in order to protect everyone from breaking Shabbat, even inadvertently. Whether one keeps Shabbat fully or not, or whether one was raised by keeping Shabbat in its entirety or not, is an entirely different issue altogether. As mentioned above, this is purely examining things from the written Halachic perspective and not passing any judgement.
In our new reality, one who is infected by COVID-19 faces a situation that is potentially fatal, definitely severely harmful to one’s health, and dangerous to others. And although more people have recovered than have died from the Corona virus, the New Zealand government and Police enforced a full lock down for several weeks (and potentially several more), in order to distance everyone from it. Social distancing was just the beginning. At Alert Level 4, travel was restricted; most workers if not all worked from home, schools were online and only essential businesses and workers continued operating. The distancing was a drastic, yet necessary, measure in order to ensure the safety of New Zealand residents, even if it may have seemed extreme at points. The residents of New Zealand, for the most part, kept to all of the regulations, and the COVID-19 impact in NZ was minimal as a result.
Rabbinic prohibitions work in the exact same way, except the potential damage is spiritual, not physical, which is much harder to see. Imagine if everyone thought that breaking Shabbat was as mortally dangerous as Covid 19.
In All of Your Ways...
These are two examples of how one can elevate the mundane by finding insight in our everyday reality, even in a pandemic. Hashem does everything for a reason, though I have no insight into the reason behind a global pandemic. In times like these we can draw upon the wise teaching from Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik z”l – who said that what we can ask ourselves during difficult times is not “Why things happen”, but “What can we learn from them”. The COVID-19 lock down experience has helped me truly understand these two Torah fundamental concepts. What insights have you gained?