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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Raffi Bilek

The Jewish Response to COVID-19

Updated: Apr 1, 2020

Much has already been said and disseminated about how the Jewish people should be responding to this global calamity. What is the message we are supposed to take from this? What rectification are we meant to enact? What does Hashem want from us?

Obviously, nobody can claim to know the answers to these questions for sure. Fortunately, any teshuva is good teshuva. If you see a message for you in this situation, you should absolutely run with it. Have you been lax in a certain area? (Answer: probably. We all could be doing better in something, right?) Can you work on improving it? If we end up better people as a result of adversity then we are on the right track.

This is of course somewhat less satisfying than having a clear sense of what the message is. This is one of the drawbacks of being without prophets. In our era, we are probably not going to be able to know with certainty what Ratzon Hashem is. I’ve seen and heard a number of attempts at explaining what we are supposed to learn from this situation.

Did we not take tefillah b’tzibur seriously enough, so now it’s been taken away?

Were we not careful enough with the kavod of others, so now we’ve been separated from them?

Was there too much sinas chinam, so now we’ve been isolated?

Did we neglect our family relationships, so now they’re the only ones we can interact with?

Did we fall prey to our taavahs, and therefore we’ve been forced to cease contact with other people?

These are all possible explanations. And the concomitant remedies are all well worth our time. Yes, we should work on our davening. Yes, we have to do better in our bein adam l’chaveiro. Yes, we should put more time and effort into our spouses and children. Yes, we should ramp up our levels of kedusha. Any teshuva is good teshuva. Don’t waste the opportunity!

I do think we have to be careful, however, about some of the peripheral interventions that have been suggested for these failings – segulos, extra tefilos, kabbalistic rituals. I am not by any means suggesting these are not authentic Jewish responses in a time like this. Bigger and wiser rabbis than me have made such suggestions, and I don’t mean to disagree with them. However, it is important not to put the cart before the horse.

Saying ketores in the morning is valuable and has a solid basis in mesorah. Reciting extra Tehillim equally so. BUT: these should not be done at the expense of the fundamentals! Namely, if you are pressured for time (and who isn’t these days?), and spending an extra five minutes praying is going to add to your stress level, which will come out on the heads of your family members,it’s not worth it. I think any of the gedolim who have suggested taking on special tefilos or practices would agree with this - not at the expense of the basics of Jewish belief and behavior.

If you can add more tefilah to your day without it negatively impacting your family, go for it. But if you cannot – and that is totally reasonable in this reality – then you don’t need to try. Moreover, you cannot say ketores and tell yourself you’re doing the right thing if you’re at the same time being nasty at home or cutting ethical corners at work.

I am hesitant to sound like I am contradicting our spiritual leaders. But if I may humbly suggest, I think for many of us (and I include myself in this), focusing and reinforcing the basis is where the focus needs to be as we try to make it through this incredibly challenging time. (And if you have time and energy for extras, more power to you!)

  • Remember to daven every day (meaning, for men three times a day and for women whatever you have been accustomed to doing). With schedules upended it’s all too easy to miss one.

  • Stay away from inappropriate materials on the internet (including indecent websites and those that peddle in lashon hara).

  • Shalom bayis keneged kulam. Put all your extra energy into keeping your cool, being nice to your spouse and children, and modeling for your children how you would like them to behave under stress.

This last point bears further elaboration, because I think it might actually be the most important. If you miss mincha because you are overloaded managing work and kids, there is tashlumin for that. There is no tashlumin for losing your temper because your 3-year-old spilled her yogurt.

Make sure to take some time to yourself, even a few minutes a day, to let yourself cool down. If you’re walking around all day on the edge of losing your temper, you’re bound to explode at some point. Recognize that this is an exceptional time in many regards, and your life will not operate like clockwork right now. Accept the imperfectness of the situation.

If you are being nice to your family, davening regularly, and maybe even keeping some semblance of a regular learning seder, you are a hero. You don’t need to fast or say ketores to be doing Hashem’s will here. Those are fine things to take on if you can. But be realistic about what you can and what you can’t take on. Don’t say ketores then go yell at your kids for disturbing you during ketores. One moment of anger can erase all the spiritual benefits of a good psalm reading.

Focus on the cake, and add the icing only afterwards. If you can keep putting one foot in front of the other during these challenging times, if you can meet your basic halachic requirements and display good middos at the same time, then you are doing Ratzon Hashem.

The one other add-on I think is important to mention is that we do want to come out of this somehow better than we went in. So the things you are doing - do them with kavanah. Be intentional and Torahdig about your attempts to stay calm. Remember that this is an avodah, not just practical advice. When you daven, do your best to have kavanah, to ask for Hashem's help to make it through this crisis, to bolster your emunah. You don't need extra deeds to grow from this experience; just do what you need to do, and do it with Hashem.

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