The ongoing coronavirus crisis calls us to seek out the deeper meaning of the global pandemic—the meaning for us, as individuals and as a community. Yes, much has already been written on the subject. Yet each day, we remain capable of discovering new meaning and gleaning new insight concerning the lessons latent within it.
On the one hand, we sense a spirit of purity flowing through the world. The ingathering into homes brings a certain purification, physical and spiritual, to the world. In the physical sense, the purity of the air is palpable, and the retreat of the human race has worked wonders for nature and for wildlife. Moreover, in certain respects humanity has also reached a certain serenity. In locales where the virus has not had a devastating impact numbers of deaths by population has decreased from previous years because of diminished automobile and other accidents. Even from a spiritual perspective, secular culture and its ills have ground to a halt; there is no public Shabbos desecration; crime has all but disappeared; and more beyond.
Without a doubt, the most distinctive outcome of the coronavirus crisis is our being housebound, with all this entails. Below I will focus on the gifts that we, as a community of Bnei Torah, can derive from this unique opportunity
On the other hand, much of the positive we are accustomed to has come to a standstill. Communal spiritual activity—that of our Shuls, our study halls, our schools—has ground to a halt. We do what we can from the home, but for many the going is tough. Many of us have not davened with a minyan for close to two months. Sometimes, our new reality fills us with optimism; sometimes the challenges, and even the tragedies, fill us with trepidation.
Without a doubt, the most distinctive outcome of the coronavirus crisis is our being housebound, with all this entails. Below I will focus on the gifts that we, as a community of Bnei Torah, can derive from this unique opportunity.
When Community Encroaches Into Home
The home is where we define our identity and strengthen our inner world. Without an intimate space, we are unable to discern the “I” within us and develop a sense of “me.” Moreover, without a home we are prone to losing all memory of our individual will, turning into a reflection of community attitudes alone. Social norms can overpower a person’s moral conscience and negate his capacity for judgement. Furthermore, at times even the home can become a mere reflection of the public square, its inhabitants measuring themselves solely through the prism of the community. Instead of building an internal world that can eventually influence those outside of ourselves, we transpose the values (or, more often, the rules) of the “outside” into the home.
Regretfully, it appears that this problem is commonplace even—or perhaps specifically – in our community of Bnei Torah. At times it seems the community has been turned into a god, no less, and religion into nothing more than a social framework
Regretfully, it appears that this problem is commonplace even—or perhaps specifically – in our community of Bnei Torah. At times it seems the community has been turned into a god, no less, and religion into nothing more than a social framework. Inasmuch as the Torah has moved to the public domain, Jewish values have become social norms, so that even mitzvah observance takes on the appearance of a cultural norm; areas such as kashrus and tznius are first to come to mind, but they are by no means exclusive. Social standards can define external markers that lack inherent significance (such as various dress codes) as having supreme importance, while they can foster laxity concerning those norms that do have true importance. If every rule turns into a social norm, and each person has his own social circle, it follows that the explicitly forbidden in one circle might be entirely acceptable in another.
We live at a time when the population of the beis midrash has increased tremendously and Torah knowledge has spread to the masses; when sefarim are published seemingly without end, and when halachic decisors have proliferated without limit; when mitzvah-observant Jews can be particular about halachic minutiae with consummate ease, and find themselves surrounded by Shuls and Torah institutions. Yet precisely at this time we have blurred the central tenets of Jewish life, transforming them into social norms and thereby appointing society as ruler over the individual.
Jewish values have become social norms, so that even mitzvah observance takes on the appearance of a cultural norm; areas such as kashrus and tznius are first to come to mind, but they are by no means exclusive
Without noticing, we have slipped into a situation where the community is our deity and the individual serves it – rather than the reverse, which ought to be the case. Success is judged against the standards of the community, and even the life of an avrech has transformed into a social norm: The word no longer connotes a choice to spend a life in learning, but rather a choice to be dependent on one’s father-in-law, or (to be more brazen) a choice to put the burden of family support on one’s wife. And of course there’s the other side of the coin: working men have been turned into second-class citizens, even if they are deeply engaged in Torah and mitzvos. As a result, the nature of yeshiva learning has itself changed, such that the social objective of “protection from the street” has superseded the objective of optimal individual growth and development. Idealism has been replaced by a form of protectionism.
Said otherwise, the sanctity of the community has transformed into the highest values, to the degree that communal activists have become a objects of aspiration. Worse still, senior rabbanim—those seen as community leaders—have been turned into deities, and we involve them in every detail of our lives. Instead of valuing them for their greatness in Torah, they have been designated “holy” merely on account of their positions as community leaders. Since we have sanctified the notion of the community itself, whoever stands at its head commands tremendous veneration; his words, projecting the voice of the community itself, are akin to the words of Hashem.
Tragically, it seems the central battle of Charedi Judaism today is for the survival of the community, instead of for the survival of religion itself. Whereas in the past voting in elections was approached with reluctance and seen as a means of supporting the flourishing of Torah, today it is perceived as an end unto itself. It is as if the Torah world exists only to serve as a means to success in the elections. When it comes to elections, the whole community is rejuvenated afresh to fight the “Battle for Torah.” This is the primary means by which the community educates its children concerning their most fundamental belonging. The “Battle for Torah” has transformed into a battle to secure the appointment of ministers to the ruling coalition, or more precisely to secure budgets.
Without noticing, we have slipped into a situation where the community is our deity and the individual serves it – rather than the reverse, which ought to be the case. […] the central battle of Charedi Judaism today is for the survival of the community, instead of for the survival of religion itself
It is not my intent to stand accuser over the Jewish people, and certainly not over Charedi society. However, it seems that alongside the growth of our community, we have slipped unwittingly into a situation that warrants attention. At least in our present (coronavirus-induced) condition, it is appropriate to take the time to focus on this situation, to avert harm and perhaps even to enable some element of growth.
Dor Ha-Palaga: Replacing Individual With Community
Without intending to do so, it seems we have returned to the sin of Dor Ha-Palaga. The flaw of this generation was the nullification of the individual. As Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch zt”l explains, the unitedness of Dor Ha-Palaga derived from the lack of value they placed on the individual (commentary to Torah, Bereishis 11). The only importance they ascribed to the individual was in his capacity as part of the community. This idea is elaborated in Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer (24): “If a person fell and died, they would pay no attention, whereas if a brick fell they would sit and cry: When will another come and replace it.” The community was more important to them than the life of an individual. This can be read into the words of the verse “the bitumen was for them as mortar” (Bereishis 11:3). The word chomer (mortar) can mean substance or matter. The bitumen, a material intended to join one thing to another, became the chomer, the substance of the project itself. No longer merely a tool for unifying individual bricks, unification became the project itself. While the true purpose of community is to unite individuals, for Dor Ha-Palaga the means became an end unto itself, and individual became subservient to the community. The melting pot they created destroyed the individual altogether, turning him into a nameless part of the communal entity.
Paradoxically, attempts to negate the individual for the betterment of the communal whole ultimately cause the whole itself to suffer. A true community must include a multitude of individuals and a variety of opinions
Paradoxically, attempts to negate the individual for the betterment of the communal whole ultimately cause the whole itself to suffer. A true community must include a multitude of individuals and a variety of opinions; the Dor Hapalagah transformed the community into the equivalent of an individual; through the negation of the individual, the community became a meta-individual. The entirety of humanity adopted one language, with one set of talking points and one set of opinions—just like an individual would have. This type of unity (or uniformity, rather) does not contribute to the development of the community; on the contrary, it restricts it to boring, one-dimensional monotony.
When the community is negated, losing its multiplicity and diversity and becoming a monolithic entity, it risks becoming a deity. Adam HaRishon, insofar as he was alone in the world, was prone to this flaw—as Chazal point out (see Bereishis Rabba). So too, a community which loses its multiplicity and effectively transforms itself into an individual is prone to come to worship itself. This was evident in the case of Dor Ha-Palaga, which ultimately declared: “Let us make a name for ourselves.” Having transformed itself into a meta-individual, the community began to worship itself. It sought its own empowerment as an end unto itself—not in order to serve its constituent members, but as an ultimate value in and of itself. By contrast, a community that preserves individual perspectives becomes a vehicle for serving each member. It facilitates the completion of that which is lacking in each individual through his membership of the community. The community does not substitute the individual, but rather empowers the individuality of each member. Moreover, the community does not risk becoming its own deity, and each individual is therefore free to develop his own personal connection with his Creator.
Avraham Avinu exemplified this idea in his own life. He was the individual par excellence (Yechezkel 33:24), and succeeded in connecting with his Creator precisely through preserving his individuality. Judaism could only emerge from such a person. To the extent that a person is a servant of the community, he is correspondingly prevented from being a servant of Hashem. In a similar vein, Adam HaRishon was created as an individual, for (as commentaries highlight) this itself is a necessary attribute of being created “in the image of Hashem.”
The virtues lauded upon the idea of community—there are many that are justifiably lauded—refer to communities composed of individuals with their own standing. They cannot be applied to communities that negate the standing of their constituent members and worship the whole alone.
Entering the Land—Entering the Home
Among the blessings and curses that were pronounced at Har Gerizim and Har Eival, the Jewish people accepted upon themselves strictures pertaining to life as individuals.
“The concealed are for Hashem our God; and the revealed are for us and our descendants for ever, so that we should fulfil all this teaching” (Devarim 28:29). Chazal interpret this verse as follows: “This teaches that [the Jewish people] were not punished for covert sins until they crossed the Jordan river” (Sanhedrin 43b). Though the Torah was given many years before, the covenant concerning covert sins was established only after entry to the Land of Israel. Our individuality, as it were, as part of the nation, was only established at the eve of our entry into the Land of Israel. At Sinai, at the giving of the Torah, we were “as one person,” which was also true for the duration of their journey through the wilderness. Only upon entry to the Land of Israel did we become individuals—each in his home and his inheritance.
Though the Torah was given many years before, the covenant concerning covert sins was established only after entry to the Land of Israel. Our individuality, as it were, as part of the nation, was only established at the eve of our entry into the Land of Israel
When a person lacks his own domain and home, it is impossible to talk of individuality. While we lived in an encampment united around the Mishkan, the values and the mitzvot we received did not relate to the individual qua individual, but rather to the whole. Only after entering the Land, after the nation was no longer encircled around the tabernacle but rather each in his home and his inheritance, we transformed into individuals.
For this reason, the covenant relating to covert sins was only made after entrance into the Land. Indeed, the majority of the curses said at the covenants of Har Gerizim and Har Eival related to covert behaviors, such as encroaching on another’s physical or economic space, a type of theft not necessarily immediately recognisable. The same is true of misdirecting a journeying blind person (mashgeh iver baderech), or warping the judgement of a convert, orphan or widow (mateh mishpat ger yatom ve’almanah)—cases in which the afflicted are vulnerable, incapable of calling out their oppressors. In the same vein, smiting another in a covert fashion (makeh re’ehu ba’seter), taking bribes (loke’ach shochad) and creating an idol (oseh pesel); each of which are sins committed far from the gaze of others.
As we entered the Land, Hashem desired that each person develop himself independently, perfect his internal world and refine his deepest drives. Through this process the individual will be able to uphold the Torah’s commandments, fulfilling them in truth and with sincerity. Even as we left Egypt, at the inception of the Jewish people as a nation, all were required to lock themselves in their homes for the entire night. Upon crossing the sea and receiving they the Torah, the whole nation came together in unity, “as one person with one heart.” But at the outset, it was incumbent upon all to withdraw into the home, a state of isolation—alone.
Only through shutting themselves off in their homes were our ancestors able to shed the spiritual impurity of Egypt and emerge to freedom; only by means of distancing from the community could they create afresh their own connection with Hashem
Our redemption from Egypt was not merely a geographical exodus, but primarily a liberation from an internal state slavery to that of freedom, starting at the time of the sacrificing of the Korban Pesach. This type of freedom, internal freedom, is inherently individual. Only through shutting themselves off in their homes were our ancestors able to shed the spiritual impurity of Egypt and emerge to freedom; only by means of distancing from the community could they create afresh their own connection with Hashem. Attached to the community, they were incapable of becoming dependent on Hashem alone; they could rely on the strength of masses. For this reason, the term “home” is repeated over and again in the verses relating to Pesach, as found both in laws of the Pesach offering and those of chametz. It is impossible to transform into a community of free people unless members of that same community first establish their own individual identities. This transition cannot be achieved without the means of a home in which to foster individuality.
A message For Our Time
This period, which sees us restricted to our homes, presents a unique opportunity. It is an opportunity to connect once again to ourselves—to live a life free of social coercion and to discharge our duties before Hashem in a more internalised way. This type of experience can remind us that while the community is there as an aid to individuals, the connection we have with our Creator is dependent on our own, individual efforts. Our aim is to return to the level of pre-sin Adam HaRishon, when he was truly an individual in the world.
There is a time and place for everything: for individuality and for community. Yes, human beings are social animals and operate best as communities. However, each possesses his own individuality, which must not be lost in the crowd
There is a time and place for everything: for individuality and for community. Yes, human beings are social animals and operate best as communities. However, each possesses his own individuality, which must not be lost in the crowd. The individual aspect of our personality is where we find the virtues of sincerity and truth. On the other hand, it needs the strength and stability of community; as Chazal say, “The community does not die” (Temurah 16b). Connection to a community empowers us and endows us with an element of timelessness. Nevertheless, as noted, we need to ensure that the public domain should not encroach upon (and, ultimately, negate) the personal domain of the individual; this would endanger the survival of the community itself.
It is up to us to find an appropriate balance between the individual and communal aspects of our lives. The community, the more so in an age of social media, threatens to turn the intimacy of our homes into something externalised and superficial—a threat we must be careful to rebuff. Outside the home, we need to be attentive to society and the range of opinions within it, while taking care not to undermine our own subjective perspective and experience. Only when the community provides space for each individual and his own perspective can it be a society of ovdei Hashem, in which each individual can connect to his Creator.
At the present time society, with its hierarchy and its norms, has taken a back seat; with the steering wheel in the hands of homes and individual, we are given an opportunity to break free of the shackles of society and return to our inner selves, to the “I” within each of us. Let us take the opportunity to strengthen ourselves as individuals, and in turn create a better and healthier community.
It is precisely by returning to our homes and to ourselves that we can emerge anew to a better society and a more complete community, one in which the individual is not negated but rather finds his own place
It is true that there are currently no minyanim, no kedusha, no sifrei Torah and no kollelim. This is a source of great pain to us. However, from a different perspective, this can be analogised to Shemini Atzeres. On Shemini Atzeres we put down our lulavim and return from our Sukkos into our homes. Bereft of all things external and superficial, we are left only with our own, deep connection to Hashem. This is our condition now: Locked up in our homes, we are prevented from engaging in the communal mitzvos that are typically crucial tools in connecting to Hashem, and have the opportunity to create a deeper and more intimate connection. It is precisely by returning to our homes and to ourselves that we can emerge anew to a better society and a more complete community, one in which the individual is not negated but rather finds his own place. Specifically Yaakov, the forefather identified with the term bayis (Bereishit Rabba 68:9), was the one who merited the blessing of, “You shall burst forth to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south.” Yaakov symbolises the bridge between individual and community.
May we, too, merit the inheritance of Yaakov Avinu—“an inheritance without limits.” And may Hashem remove from among us all illness and disease and fulfill the promise: “I will not bring upon you any of the illnesses that I placed upon Egypt, for I am Hashem your healer.”