We are living a new and unfamiliar reality. Not that plagues are unknown to human history. Yet there is something unique in the threat we face, certainly for the last few generations. The combination of our modern “global village” and the unique nature of COVID-19’s spread has magnified the influence this new phenomenon, and many countries, mainly in the West, are in a state of emergency that has deeply impacted their populations.
This situation requires two fundamental responses. One relates to our everyday, earthly conduct. In this we must act as Chazal already prescribe for the Plague: “When plague is in city, gather in your feet” (Bava Kama 60b). Every individual, family and community must see to their own safety, including of course full compliance with health ministry regulations—a matter so obvious that it barely deserves stating. But together with our responsibility for our health and that greater society, we need to ask ourselves: What does Hashem want from us? What is He telling us, and what does He expect of us?
[T]ogether with our responsibility for our health and that greater society, we need to ask ourselves: What does Hashem want from us? What is He telling us, and what does He expect of us?
I will not be joining the choir of voices that present a specific cause for the troubled time we experience—lashon hara, Shabbos violation, breaches in modesty, Internet use, or the like. On the contrary, I will try to explain why such suggestions are not appropriate for a situation of plague, and why it ought to stimulate a different kind of response.
At the same time, I think the “back to basics” that much of the world (including the Jewish world) has endorsed is also lacking. I agree that there is a need to strengthen the foundations of family and home, but if the sum total of the message is to go back to basics, the likelihood is that any tangible effect of this message will dissipate once the corona period comes to its end. I expect that beyond the immediate duration of the crisis itself, nothing will change.
By contrast with these approaches, I will seek a deeper understanding of what a plague represents from the perspective of our connection to Hashem. A plague is a unique phenomenon, both physically and spiritually. It stands outside the regular parameters of earthly phenomena, whether of disease or of other worldly experiences. This uniqueness, if we can understand it better, obligates us in a special form of avoda, different to those that we are usually occupied with.
I will not be joining the choir of voices that present a specific cause for the troubled time we experience—lashon hara, Shabbos violation, breaches in modesty, Internet use, or the like. On the contrary, I will try to explain why such suggestions are not appropriate for a situation of plague, and why it ought to stimulate a different kind of response
I hope that by understanding this better we will emerge from the crisis, alongside much pain and mourning for loss, with some tangible gain in our hands.
The (Spiritual) Meaning of Plague
A plague is defined by the exponential graphs we have all become accustomed to over the corona period: it spreads rapidly and indiscriminately, infecting all who cross its path. Since the “plague has begun,” Aharon Ha-Kohen needed to hasten to stop its spread: “He ran among the congregation” (Bamidbar 17:12). The nature of a plague is to spread with tremendous speed, and the only way to deal with it is to stop the spread—to stand between the live and the dead, as Aharon did.
This physical description of a plague goes hand in hand with a spiritual reality already mentioned in the Gemara. While the Malach Ha-Maves usually fulfills his mission of taking a life only by taking “eight steps,” the Gemara states that at times of plague he performs his task with “a single step” (Berachos 4b). His mission is performed with ultimate speed, immediately. This means that although in ordinary circumstances, the decree of death is only realized after all the different consequences and effects are weighed up, when it comes to a time of plague these auxiliary effects are not taken into consideration. The act of the Malach Ha-Maves is performed instantly, without as it were “taking permission” from the other offices of Divine supervision over the world.
Suspension of the considerations usually taken into account by the Malach Ha-Maves indicates a unique spiritual state of affairs, which informs another basic aspect of a plague: its indiscriminate nature. The plague does not distinguish between the righteous and the less righteous, the virtuous and the sinful. As the Gemara notes (Bava Kama 60b), when the mashchis is given license to destroy, he does not discriminate between tzaddik and rasha (as we also find on the night of Yetzias Mitzrayim, during which we were forbidden from leaving home). All are equally vulnerable, all must gather themselves to their homes.
In the framework of mishpat (justice) that usually governs the world order, a person can be saved by merit. But in times of plague, the justice-related concepts of reward and punishment are hidden from view, and a different order comes to the fore
A time of plague suspends the ordinary concepts of justice and merit. In the framework of mishpat (justice) that usually governs the world order, a person can be saved by merit. But in times of plague, the justice-related concepts of reward and punishment are hidden from view, and a different order comes to the fore—an order that somehow transcends mishpat, reflecting a more elevated and direct revelation of Hashem’s will. At this level there is no point in searching for a specific cause for the plague in this or that specific sin. The revelation of a higher world order, an elevation that is ordinarily concealed behind the familiar framework of reward and punishment, is not related to particular human deeds. On the contrary: it transcends them.
In this, too, we find a correlation between the physical and the spiritual aspects of a plague. On the physical level, the fear of plague—certainly that we are currently facing—is not necessarily a fear of personal infection and illness. Some, the young and the fit, do not see COVID-19 as a personal threat (justifiably or otherwise). The fear, rather, is of spread, of an indiscriminate contamination that will bring the world to a standstill. Divine supervision reveals something beyond those regular orders that govern human activity; it demonstrates that notwithstanding our tremendous scientific advances, we are still helpless in the face of such calamity. Human advancement, however impressive, has its limitations; our collective “strength and might of hand” has its boundaries.
Hashem shows us—specifically us, we who generally believe that we are not partners to the global game of kochi ve’otzem yadi—that we are deeply mistaken: We too share in the very same hubris, just in the spiritual rather than physical sense.
Alongside this lesson, the plague projects a corresponding spiritual message. Hashem shows us—specifically us, we who generally believe that we are not partners to the global game of kochi ve’otzem yadi—that we are deeply mistaken: We too share in the very same hubris, just in the spiritual rather than physical sense. Even we tend to think that we have control over our situation—control by means of studying Torah and performing mitzvos, by davening and by donating to Kupat Ha-Ir. The condition of plague rails us in. No merit, even that of Torah and mitzvah performance, can save us; those who believe otherwise share the same arrogance as the Western disposition to control the world by means of scientific advancement. Neither they, nor we, wield the reins of absolute power.
Yes, it’s always good to multiply our merits, to strengthen ourselves in upkeep of the Torah’s directives and in adhering to the path of the just. But the response to plague is different
Our reaction in a time of plague needs to be in keeping with the above definition. Yes, it’s always good to multiply our merits, to strengthen ourselves in upkeep of the Torah’s directives and in adhering to the path of the just. But the response to plague is different: The unique elevation revealed in the harsh form of a plague calls us to connect—to connect with this elevation, with a place beyond even the Divine attribute of reward and punishment.
Stopping a Plague: The Ketores of Aharon
Aharon’s response to the plague the Torah describes, by instruction of Moshe, was to take the Ketores (incense) in his hand and bring it among the people. Elsewhere, concerning the congregation of Korach, the Torah clarifies how terrible, when unleashed, the power of the Ketores can be. The congregation of Korach died by the Ketores, instilling terror of its destructive force among the people. This power is a sign of how offering the Ketores is unique among service of Hashem. The danger latent therein is that the Ketores rises directly up to Hashem. It is different in this sense to mitzvah performance, and even to other sacrificial offerings, for which some element of the offering always remains in the world (even for a Korban Olah). This is not the case for the Ketores, of which nothing remains in the world; everything ascends to Hashem.
Nadav and Avihu thus died even as they drew close to Hashem with the Ketores (Vayikra 16:1). Their drawing close was itself the cause of their death. Even the congregation of Korach intedned to achieve a closeness to Hashem, yet they were consumed by the flames of the Ketores. Ordinarily, a person is simply unable to wield the power of the Ketores; only Aharon could so do, under instruction from Moshe, and use it to stop the plague.
Aharon did not heal the plague, but rather stopped it. As explained above, a plague cannot be healed; the danger is latent in its capacity for exponential spreading, and it can only be overcome by stopping the spread
In relation to Aharon and the Ketores, we should pay attention to the words of the Pasuk. Aharon did not heal the plague, but rather stopped it. As explained above, a plague cannot be healed; the danger is latent in its capacity for exponential spreading, and it can only be overcome by stopping the spread. In line with its nature, the means by which it can be stopped is by touching the same elevation from which it draws—by transcending the details of our own lives, and by as it were adopting a frame of mind that resonates with the “single step” of the Malach Ha-Maves.
Such is the service of the Ketores, which transcends the ordinary spiritual framework we live with. Alongside the danger inherent to its power, the Ketores is able to stop the plague; it can raise something from our earthly reality to the transcendent elevation from which the plague draws, and from there to stop it. We do not of course possess the Ketores; we are also not on a high enough level to wield its power. Yet there are two matters in which there is some parallel, albeit decidedly partial, to the concept of the Ketores. One is our davening, the service of prayer. The other is the internal-human motion that we can experience upon gathering into our homes.
Prayer as Incense
“May my prayer be set before you like incense” (Tehillim 141:2). An aspect of prayer reflects the elevation of the Ketores. We generally view prayer as a request for our needs: we stand before Hashem, declare ourselves lacking and needy, and anticipate His salvation. But prayer has another dimension, one what resembles the Ketores. Prayer in this sense involves an ascension to a higher level, the point at which Hashem enters our world. In this form of prayer a person must annul himself before Hashem, as Rabbeinu Yona writes: “He should think in his heart as though he stands in the heavens.”
We generally view prayer as a request for our needs: we stand before Hashem, declare ourselves lacking and needy, and anticipate His salvation. But prayer has another dimension, one what resembles the Ketores
The Nefesh HaChaim mentions this quote from Rabbeinu Yona, and explains: “This means that a person should feel in himself that all sensation of the body, which is dust from the earth, is annulled, and all his feelings must relate to the spirit alone, which is tied to its heavenly source with great love” (Sha’ar 2, Chap. 14). I will not elucidate the words of the Nefesh HaChaim, which would require a lengthy exposition of the entire second Sha’ar; for our purposes suffice it to note the aspect of prayer in which a person is elevated to level that transcends the limitations of the body and the physical world, and touches a place of ultimate elevation. In this respect, prayer resembles the elevated service of the Ketores.
This concept of davening is inherently different from the usual concepts of strengthening our performance of mitzvos (important of course, but not our topic), and even of prayer in the standard sense. More than anything else, it relies specifically on deepening our Emuna. Mitzvos draw kedusha into the world. The mitzvah of Tzitzis draws kedusha onto our clothing, Tefillin onto our bodies, and berachos onto the food we consume. By contrast, the aspect of prayer I am referring to does not draw kedusha into the world, but rather elevates the person himself, the person engaged in davening, to the transcendent level at which Hashem connects to our world—or to “all created worlds,” as the Nefesh HaChaim explains at length. Our lives, our simple and physical existence, become a part of something far higher, connected to a point of transcendence beyond the everyday level on which we operate.
This is the service of prayer we are called to at this time. It is a service of connection, a service of Emuna, of internalizing how significant we are to Hashem and how lofty is our reach. The spread of a plague presents us with a revelation of elevation, of transcendence. Its language is a harsh one—of danger and suffering and death, chas ve-shalom. But the message itself reveals a connection—a connection of our own world to a plane of Divine elevation, which transcends even the everyday frameworks of reward and punishment.
Our response is in kind: to forge and live our own connection, to the degree that we can, with the same elevation. This we do by means of prayer—the special aspect of prayer that emerges from the Nefesh HaChaim, transcending our own reality and perceiving a reality beyond. The plague reveals the harsh side of this elevation; through prayer we are able to reveal the same elevation, the same connection, in a way that gives life—a connection of life to the transcendent and the Holy. This was the way in which the service of the Ketores was able to stop the plague; and this is the service to which we are called even as today’s plague ravishes the world: to the special level of Emuna latent in this aspect of prayer.
Aspiring to Greatness—From the Home
It is important to add a more practical dimension to the said response: How does the idea of this elevation impact our everyday lives? In a practical sense, the service of prayer and Emuna—a service of connecting to a place of elevation and transcendence—calls us to a personal growth that renders us worthy of it. The Ketores could only be wielded by Aharon Ha-Kohen, and even the elevated service of prayer requires us to achieve personal greatness, to become worthy of such a prayer. It seems to me that the current situation, in which we are confined to our homes, presents us a unique opportunity for achieving such growth.
[A]chieving growth and greatness requires input and investment. It cannot happen by itself. This is why the “back to basics” message is insufficient. Like a frozen product, once out of our incubation period we will simply thaw, returning to the same place from which we departed.
Leaving the public domain means that our own world has shrunk to different proportions from those we are accustomed used. In our small micro-worlds, we have not great luminaries to look up to; the task of representing human greatness falls to ourselves. Nobody else will do it for us. And achieving growth and greatness requires input and investment. It cannot happen by itself. This is why the “back to basics” message is insufficient. Like a frozen product, once out of our incubation period we will simply thaw, returning to the same place from which we departed. “Back to basics” without investing energies in a positive direction will not avail.
The point I wish to accentuate is that a person always searches for “more”—he aspires to growth, he seeks development. This point emerges from the commentary of the Rambam to the passage of “Vayehi Binso’a Ha’aron” (Bamidbar 1:35), where he enumerates three pur’anuyos, three calamities that the Jewish People experienced. The first of the three refers to the nation’s gleeful traverse from Har Sinai, “as a child who escapes” from school, out of fear that Hashem will hand out more Torah and mitzvos. Concerning Torah, concerning their spiritual condition, the people were “happy with their lot.” The Torah is a complete edifice of taryag, which encompasses the full human frame (composed also of taryag). They received something complete and were not interested in more.
The third calamity was soon to follow: if the inner motion of aspiration is not realized in the spirit, it will find realization elsewhere; if not inwards, in an inner grown, then it will be directed outward, toward the carnal and superficial elements of human living
This itself, being satisfied with what they received, is classified as a calamity, because human nature is to always aspire for more. Since this aspiration was not directed toward the spiritual elevation of Sinai they found themselves inherently lacking, which brought them to the second calamity: they complained before Hashem, which the Ramban writes as indicating that “they were hurting and suffering for themselves.” They felt a sense of frustration and exasperation due to their state of stagnation—a state that is mentally damaging to the aspiring human condition. The third calamity was soon to follow: if the inner motion of aspiration is not realized in the spirit, it will find realization elsewhere; if not inwards, in an inner grown, then it will be directed outward, toward the carnal and superficial elements of human living. The Ramban thus explains the third calamity, a lust that the people felt, as referring to desires that verge on the inhuman: “They were lacking nothing in the wilderness, for they had the manna to satiate them, and they would make of it a range of delicacies of wondrous taste; yet they imagined in their spirits a great desire, as those who desire to eat coals and dust and putrified foods” (Bamidbar 11:4). Meaning, they directed the human power of “more” externally, outside of themselves rather than inside. Since even the matter of eating had been satisfied by the manna, they desire extended to elements outside of ordinary human boundaries—coals and dust.
Human nature is to desire “more.” This nature derives from the elevation to which we belong, the transcendence we can touch—as demonstrated by the Ketores. The question is only where this urge is directed to, internally or superficially, toward human growth or toward superficial frills. The damaging side of our desire for more includes such deviations as drugs and the blissful nihilism that some tragically fall into. But it also includes more everyday examples, such as those who invest all of their powers in money and fame, rather than character development and true human growth. Hashem tells us to stop. He reveals how we are connected to an elevation far beyond us, and even directs us how we should realize that elevation by pushing us home, to a place of modesty, or looking inwards, of deep relationships rather than the façades of the public domain.
The home challenges us. We are used to realizing the “more” of the human condition outside—in the study halls, in our social interactions, at work, in the Shuls, and so on. But in today’s conditions we are forced to find the outlet within the home
The home challenges us. We are used to realizing the “more” of the human condition outside—in the study halls, in our social interactions, at work, in the Shuls, and so on. But in today’s conditions we are forced to find the outlet within the home; our drive for growth is directed inward, rather than outward. This is relevant areas that we might otherwise neglect—prayer, Emuna, modesty, relationships, and so on—all with nobody else present or watching.
If we direct attention to these areas, invest energy and work on the growth that derives our inherent elevation, we might actually come out of the crisis we go through strengthened as individuals, and, since a nation is comprised of its families, strengthened also as a nation.
The period we are going through is anything but easy. It is filled with tragedy, with illness and suffering, and with much anxiety. Yet, through of hardship we are called to reflect on what it is that Hashem wants from us at this time. Which spiritual lens should we adopt for looking at the situation of a plague? What is even the appropriate terminology for reflection on the ongoing situation? Instead of escaping from the reality we live, as some tend to do, by chasing after segulos and other fantasies, it is incumbent upon us to remain connected to reality—to the physical reality we live in, and even to the parallel spiritual reality that confronts us.
I wish to see our reality as one of fundamental elevation. Hashem is showing us that we are higher than we usually think, more elevated than we ordinarily assume. Our own reality touches a higher plane, one that has the capacity to overwhelm the regular world order. Even the Divine system of reward and punishment is suspended in its wake.
Our response to this revelation needs to be in kind. On the one hand, to find our own connection, our own involvement in this higher plane—which receives an expression in a certain aspect of prayer (as elucidated in the Nefesh HaChaim) and in our Emuna. On the other hand, we should be attuned to our own aspirations for greatness, which itself draws from our inherent elevation, and direct it inwardly rather than superficially, to a place of deep human growth.
I do not refer to the type of diary intended as a historical documentation, and certainly not for personal perpetuation (for the grandchildren to find), but to that which pays attention to a person’s mental and spiritual condition, inner motions that find expression at special times such as these
By way of practical advice, I will only point out what I say among my own mentors, and specifically the Mashgiash (Rav Shlomo Wolbe) zt”l, who were careful to write diaries. I do not refer to the type of diary intended as a historical documentation, and certainly not for personal perpetuation (for the grandchildren to find), but to that which pays attention to a person’s mental and spiritual condition, inner motions that find expression at special times such as these. Such a diary is not meant for others, but rather for us; it assists us in knowing ourselves better, and to direct our tendency for “more” to a place of real growth.
We cannot know where things are going, where they take us. But we can certainly say that this time, alongside its hardships, is latent with potential. It is a time that reveals an elevation—a kind of elevation that blurs the margins of our world order and urges us to a higher calling. If only we could harness the moment for growth and for betterment, perhaps we will be able to return to a better human reality, one strengthened in spirit and reinforced in its connection with Hashem.