Ratzon Hatorah, Yitzi Horowitz, LCSW
Last week, after saying “Chazak Chazak Venischazek” upon completing Parshas BeChukosai, I commented to my wife that we said “Chazak Chazak Venischazek” at the end of Parshas Pikudei in our house as well. We read the entirety of Sefer VaYikra in quarantine. But that slowly things seem to be re-opening. The world is kind of peeking its head out from under the covers and we are all looking around. Many Shules throughout the Tristate region are opening this week, Thank God. Somehow this thought of having read of all Sefer VaYikra at home remains bounding around inside me. The significant themes throughout Sefer VaYikra are Mishkan, Korbonos and Tzora’as. The lateral process is already clear. Shule, disease and sacrifice. Boy, have we have sacrificed. Too many people have died. Loss of income, challenging family situations, personal mental health issues and so on… Research shows that the aftershocks of a national crises or worldwide pandemic takes years to even become apparent and in many ways decades to recover from. Let’s not kid ourselves about the effects Corona will have.
At the same time, pandemics do not discriminate, and I think we have all acquiesced to the almost-forgotten fact that we are all human. We are all vulnerable. During these last few months we have come together in unity, to preserve the dignity of human life. The charade we call “normalcy” is in the middle of an intermission. And while the curtain has gone down and the show has stopped, the veil that has been covering our humanity has been lifted. This intermission takes place at a point in history of such political divisiveness, personal complexities and ideological wars. It is actually quite refreshing to recognize what humans have succeeded in doing these last few months. We have unified. We locked ourselves in the coziness of our homes instead of running around like frantic busy making machines. We have stayed away from each other so that we may invite each other into our hearts instead of our homes. We have welcomed our colleagues, students, teachers, friends, clients and partners into our dining rooms and bedrooms via zoom instead of hustling around stuffy offices, dreary classrooms and fancy restaurants and severe boardrooms. We have spent quality times with the ones we love instead of trying to impress those we don’t. We have introduced ourselves to neighbors we haven’t talked to in decades, offered to help those we never thought to think of and have come to recognize the importance of our grocery packers and delivery drivers. Even the Earth feels like she is getting a well-deserved stretch, a massage, having her Shabbos or Shemitta. Trees and grass look greener and taller this year. The world’s water is clearer, and the animal kingdom is stretching its arms and legs. There are more birds and squirrels around… We got 5 separate invitations to do Shiluach Haka’an this month and we discovered a bird’s nest in our trees as well.
It’s truly a glorious time. Life feels vivid again.
We must reflect. We must take the time to discover something new. For me, it is about asking ourselves, is quarantine a restriction or a sacrifice? Are we in jail at home or are have we sacrificed life for the sake of something greater? Did Hashem take our lives away from us or have we offered our lives to Him? I am not suggesting an answer, but for me this question keeps me in line when I think about how restless I feel with all this going on. Has our quarantining been a restriction the government has placed on us or has humanity decided to do something in unison, for once, to preserve life?
Sacrifice. Quarantine as sacrifice means that we, as humans, have chosen to embrace safety instead of being forced into uncomfortability. Quarantine as sacrifice means that while Hashem has sent this pandemic to us, we have made a choice to respond instead of react.
Sacrifice means that we give something up for the sake of something greater. Korbonos, the slaughtering of an animal is the abject rejection of human sacrifice, because human life matters too much. In its death we express all kinds of things to ourselves and to God. In its death we let go of something inside of us. All sacrifice creates a vacuum. A new emptiness that is frightening and full of uncertainty. It means to let go of what are familiar with. To detach what we know from our lives and let go of it. Sacrifice is an act of faith. To sacrifice is to let go of knowledge for the sake of faith. That I can let go of what I am holding on to and be ok without it. That I can be ok with the emptiness I am left with, without knowing what will grow from the emptiness. And all sacrifice works the same, we must do it without knowing. Abandoning our intellectual certainties and our comfort zones. And we must do it with the fear of the abyss. And when we do, when we let go and fly into the oblivion that sacrifice begs of us, we are reborn to a greater life, a cleaner life, a healthier, more expanded and holier life.
So, we have sacrificed much in our quarantine. We don’t know what the fallout will be yet, but we also don’t know what positivity is cooking inside this world-wide quarantine? We don’t know what kind of soil is buried inside the vacuum left by us in the world, what kind of healing is happening. So, I give you my dream.
We have sacrificed our sociability and have distanced ourselves from each other. And I dream that we use the distance as a sacrifice. Distance gives us a new perspective, a new look. Like sometimes we move back from a painting to behold its fullness. I dream that social distancing has given us each a step back. To behold the magnificence of each other. To look at how we might be a part of something that we might have never realized. That our community as a whole sometimes is not just greater than the sum total of all it’s parts but that the whole infuses all its parts with the beauty of the whole. That you are all simply human-beings, vulnerable and fragile and trying to make it in life, just like me. That I am as important in the community whether I am popular or recognized the way I want to or as those who have larger than life personalities. That while the community is greater than the sum of all its parts it is also made up of all its parts and that I am a part, just like you.
Hashem, I pray that the things I have learned about people from how I see and relate to humanity will allow me to be softer, more attentive to, more appreciative for and more engaging with people. That the ego, expectations, jealousies, judgments and resentments I carry will remain distant while the awe I feel when observing humans from a distance will remain with me when I see them up close. That I remained proudly humbled to be a human, to be a Jew. That I treat people the way I feel about them now and not the way I might feel when socialization begins again, and the mask of my ego goes back on.
If we have sacrificed then we must look at what we, as Jews, have sacrificed. We have sacrificed the magnificent weddings we make, the Bar and Bat Mitzvahs we make and the beautiful chessed that takes place in our Shiva houses. We have sacrificed the powerful energy of Torah learning in Beis Medrash and the thousands of chiddushei Torah that Bnei Yeshiva make daily. If we have sacrificed it means we have donated. We have donated it all back to You, Hashem. Every person who has celebrated a lifestyle event in relative solitude has donated something to humanity. Has given a Tzeddaka called LIFE back to humanity. Every Kaddish we didn’t say for a lost loved one was a donation to the living. Every chosson and kallah who had a backyard wedding and who didn’t get wedding checks donated their wedding party and all their presents to us. Every parsha we didn’t lein, every shiur that did not happen, every chiddush in Torah that wasn’t brought about, every “Kesser” we didn’t say, all of it has been donated to our community. And we have donated all the beauty of our community to parts that make up its sum. We sacrificed with our quarantine and donated to something that has sorely lacked funds the last few generations. We have made a donation to a box with the words “human dignity” written on its side. We have tasted a restoration of the beautiful individual to its rightful place as a crown on the head of community.
So, Hashem, we hope you recognize the sacrifice we have made and don’t take it lightly. Humans are generally creatures of habit and our generation is so complacent in the regularities of life that shaking us up like this makes sacrificing infinitely greater than what it seems. Please help us remember the importance of caring for ourselves as individuals and for treating each other with the personal dignity we all deserve. Please accept our donations and make sure they make it to their intended recipients. Ensure that no community makes anyone feel less than a prince again. Ensure that we are full individuals and that the pushka of human dignity never dries up again.
Which brings me to think about minyan. I have been unabashed about my preference for davening alone. Distance must make us see things from a different perspective. Knowing that there has been no “amen, yehei shmei Rabbah” for more than the last two months has made me rethink what minyan essentially is. That I, an individual and you, an individual, pray in the most intimate and personal way to the same God is already a struggle for many people. Think about the following sentiment I have heard many times from people who can’t bring themselves to talk to Hashem:
How can Hashem really care about little old me in such a way that I am the center of His universe if He cares about you in such a way that you are the center of His universe? I can’t share the stage with someone else. I don’t believe that Hashem pays any attention to me in a deeply personal way while He also pays deep attention to everyone else in the world. Not because Hashem can’t do that but because I am too puny, I feel too fragile, too small.
I think this kind of spiritual FOMO is much more common than we might think. This kind of insignificance is, perhaps, the psychological experience of many theologians who have ultimately rejected Orthodox Judaism or religion altogether. How interesting that during all this quarantine we have seen the words, “Alone, Together” written all over social media. They stole it from us. To daven with a minyan is to be alone, together. My praying, as a deeply personal reflection about myself and my deeply personal and intimate reconnection with Hashem takes place only when I am with you. Each one of us very much alone and inside our own subjective lives trying as hard as we can to connect with Him. But in a minyan we don’t just do it next to or even with each other; we pray seamlessly as one unit, together. We pray the same formalized repetitious words that the next guy does and that Jews have been praying for more than a thousand years. And we insert our personal lives into those words and we light them up and donate them back to Hashem. Together but alone. Davening with a minyan is really very paradoxical. I miss the layers of complexity and the tapestry these paradoxes give birth to.
Soon we will return from quarantine. It seems as if this Shabbos I will be at the first minyan I have been to for almost three months.
Hashem, the magic of our community is You. When we pray alone with you, together with our brothers and sisters, You are the thread that sews each of us into one tapestry. It is You who transforms us individuals into a community. You are the One who brings my dreams into reality, Your Soul within me to my ego, my inner garden to the world, my intentions to action and You who brings balance to the middle of the storm. We will continue to sacrifice as You want us to, but please restore the Beis Hamikdash when we can bring true Korbonos, animal sacrifice, again. Reset us to the factory settings, so that there is nothing about us that needs to be sacrificed again, nothing about us that can afford to be sacrificed. Let humanity become YouMan, You and Man together as One whole. So that no one needs to be afflicted anymore, no one need to be in pain and no one needs to die. No one needs to know loss or feel the fear of the unknown. Let us taste of the sweetness that surpasses certainty and uncertainty that is You.
May we edge our way out of quarantine having planted seeds inside the earth, inside our communities and inside ourselves. May the sacrifices be donations and the donations reach their destinations. May the distances we have had from each other simply be “emptiness soil” yielding unimaginable potential, opportunities and delicacies. And may we all find it within ourselves to re-embrace the world with a renewed softness, a stronger love, a more compassionate vulnerability and a capacity for radical wonderment at that which is truly beautiful in life. And may the sacrifices we have made all these 2000 years of our exile be enough of a donation to You, Hashem. So that You will fill the empty hole in our hearts and the empty hole on the Har Habayis with our Home, bm’heira bYamenu, so that we can quarantine our lives in Your Home Forever.
Ah Gut Shabbos!