The worst possible outcome would be for us to remain unchanged by this crisis
I've been more concerned for my physical safety and that of my loved ones in the past than I am now. My childhood idyll growing up in the United States was shattered by the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis, which seemed to hold the potential for incinerating the world in a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union.
I can remember watching our neighbors across the ravine building a bomb shelter in their backyard. And they made sure to let us know they had guns to protect their safe haven.
In Israel, fear of war has been a constant companion. During the 1991 Gulf War, the radio stayed on Shabbos to alert us instantly to any missiles headed our way, and we spent at least a few nights huddled with our kids in our sealed room. At the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, I stared out from my succah window expecting to see Palestinians coming over the nearby hills at any moment.
In March 2002, over 130 Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks — the equivalent of close to 5,000 Americans — culminating with the Seder night bombing in Netanya. By the time of Operation Defensive Shield, we had come to feel like ducks in a shooting gallery. Every morning, we would listen to the daily terrorist alert and calculate where each of our children would be traveling that day and decide whether it was safe to let them get on buses.
I HAVE NOT YET EXPERIENCED that same degree of personal fear from the SARS Coronavirus-2, despite being part of what is referred to in all the news reports as the vulnerable age group and having two close friends in ICU units in the United States.
But in terms of the disruption of the normal routines of life, the present plague surpasses anything I have lived through. The instinctive response of every Torah Jew in times of national danger is to increase tefillah and Torah learning. Now we can't even join a daily minyan, much less participate in mass prayer gatherings. Instead of the yeshivos remaining open during bein hazemanim, as happened during past wars, the bochurim were sent home before the end of winter zeman.
Adding to the disorientation, the pandemic does not fit into the familiar patterns of Yiddishe tzaros. We are intimately familiar with malevolent enemies bent on killing us. But the virus is not even a living organism. It is a submicroscopic inanimate particle that bears us no ill intent, and makes no distinction between Jews and gentiles.
And there is nothing we can do to fight it. It is not a human enemy against which the vaunted Israel Defense Forces can wage war. The only thing we can do is wash our hands incessantly and remain bunkered down at home, totally passive. I still hope to have my elderly mother for the Seder, and to make that possible my wife and I have to stay in total lockdown.
Worse, no one has any idea when it will end. The talk now is of even stricter closures. The present shutdown will last longer and wreak more economic havoc than any past general mobilization. A way will have to be found to put Israelis back to work, while maintaining strict safeguards for the elderly and the immune-suppressed. But Prime Minister Netanyahu is not even discussing that as of yet. The situation is no different in the US, except for President Trump's explicitly expressed wish to get the country back to work.
THE WORST POSSIBLE OUTCOME would be for us to remain unchanged by this crisis. Informed of an earthquake in Japan, the Chofetz Chaim told his surprised informant, "We must do teshuvah." He was referring to the Gemara in Yevamos (63a): "Rabi Elazar ben Avina said, 'No punishment comes to the world other than for Israel.' " Rabi Elazar brings as his proof text a verse in Tzefaniah (3:7), in which Hashem relates the destruction brought upon oppressors of Israel and adjures His people, "[J]ust fear me and accept chastisement."
Now, however, we are affected directly. Torah communities around the world have been among the hardest struck. Hashem is not addressing us indirectly; He is speaking straight to us.
What the precise message is I do not know. But each of us can at least grasp that we have been given a unique opportunity to become deeper, more connected Jews.
Rav Reuven Leuchter writes that, most times, when we find ourselves in a difficult situation — e.g., medical — we have two paths. We can do everything possible to heal ourselves or we can humble ourselves before Hashem and recognize that He is the source of all that befalls us. Generally, we do both, for the verse rapoh yirapei explicitly gives permission to the doctor to heal.
But in the present situation we can only be passive with respect to protecting ourselves. Seeking Hashem's message is primary. This much we know for certain — we have been thrust back upon ourselves and our own internal resources to a rare extent. Hashem has invited us to meet ourselves, something we are often reluctant to do. Removed from the dictates of our society we have no choice but to rediscover our own free will. Our situation is like that on Rosh Hashanah when we stand alone before Hashem to "discuss" our unique mission in the world and our performance, without comparison to anyone else.
All our familiar habits and patterns of life — what we do because that's what our society does — have receded into the background. We cannot content ourselves with our presence in a minyan. It is our individual tefillah that Hashem seeks. We cannot satisfy ourselves with being part of a beis medrash in which the kol haTorah rings out. It is our individual learning He wants.
Hashem has handed us an opportunity to rediscover the true essence of things. A chasunah is a simchah because it represents the creation of a new home that will be a dwelling place for the Shechinah. And that can be celebrated with ten others; it does not require elaborate smorgasbords nor hundreds of invitees feasting. Indeed, they only detract.
For many youngsters, this year will be the first time that they have ever participated in Pesach cleaning and experienced a Seder at home, where it will be more than the opening event in a week of fun activities in some exotic locale.
Hashem loved Avraham intimately because He knew that Avraham commanded his children after him in the way of Hashem. Educating our children in Hashem's ways is not just one more thing we do among many, and which can be fulfilled with an hour a week of Avos U'banim. It is our primary task as a Jew. We have now been provided the time to focus on each of our children as individuals, to discover the unique kochos hanefesh of each, and to help each one find his or her path to Hashem.
For those of us past the child-rearing years, we have been given a unique opportunity to rejoice with our spouses without distraction and to appreciate our good fortune to have a life partner with whom to share all life's joys and sorrows.
Cut off from those closest to us makes them all the more precious. The first thing I did after last Shabbos was to call a former chavrusa, with whom I completed Bava Metzia and Kiddushin in Mir Yeshivah, and whom I have not spoken with in a few years, to tell him how much I had gained from his sefer on the Sfas Emes over Shabbos.
Jews continually tap into the past to make it present. At the Seder, we tell of the exodus from Mitzrayim and reinforce the lessons of the miracles Hashem did for us.
And when the current ordeal ends, mindful of the power of human amnesia, we must similarly resolve to make concrete efforts to keep hold of all that we have learned.