What is the pandemic telling us?

When troubles occur, the Torah advises us to take advantage of them to examine our actions. This plague forced the world to look inward.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed ,

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
PR photo

The Corona plague is a global event of a magnifude that we have not experienced for decades. It is not yet clear how serious the overall danger of the disease is, but the present danger is enough to disrupt all order of life in the whole world. Many leaders, in accordance with the position of the medical establishment, have decided to lockdown entire countries. Numerous houses of worship have been closed, tourism has shut down, many businesses have collapsed, cultural events were canceled, and hundreds of millions of people were laid off.

Everything that happens to us is meant to arouse us to cheshbon nefesh (soul-searching), so we can turn away from evil, and be more precise in our choice of good, or as our Sages said (Berachot 5a): "If a man sees that painful sufferings visit him, let him examine his conduct. For it is said: ‘Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord’ (Lamentations 3:40).

If he examines and finds nothing objectionable, let him attribute it to the neglect of the study of Torah. For it is said: ‘Blessed is the one You discipline, O Lord, and teach him from Your Torah’ (Psalms 94:12). Thus, we are required to conduct a cheshbon nefesh and examine the lessons that, in the meantime, can be learned from this global event.

Since this is a global pandemic, the cheshbon nefesh must be universal, and drawing on this, we must derive our own national cheshbon nefesh, and that of each and every one of us.

The Process of Globalization

In recent generations, as a result of the improvement in transportation and communications, the entire world underwent a process of globalization. Distant societies and peoples `became closer. In the past, only rare goods were sold from one country to another, whereas today, even the simplest goods are produced in poor countries at one end of the globe, to be sold at the other end. In the distant past, the process of transferring ideas and fashions from one country to another, and from one continent to another, took generations, whereas today it can occur within a few years.

In the distant past, sometimes it took hundreds of years before scientific discoveries were conveyed from one country to another. Over time, the process was shortened, until today, scientists from all over the world collaborate, and each discovery immediately becomes the groundwork for further research.

The Positive and the Negative

In general, the process of globalization is positive. Thanks to it, cooperation between peoples, societies, and nations has greatly increased. Scientific research has broken boundaries. Cooperation in production and trade has lowered the price of food and goods. Most people today have a standard of living that was once only the domain of the rich, life expectancy is rising, and even wars are dwindling.

However, in the event of the pandemic outbreak, globalization has become an obstacle. Within a few weeks, via planes and ships, the Corona virus spread to countries leading globalization - the United States and Europe.

And no one can assure us that more dangerous viruses will not develop in the future.

External versus Internal Relations

The process of globalization placed emphasis on the external relations between countries, societies and peoples, and as a result, caused them to neglect their respective inner worlds. Globalization has led to such great prosperity, to the point where it seemed to many that success depended solely on expanding relations with other outsiders, and anything unrelated was neglected.

In general, in recent generations people involved in globalization have led the world politically, economically, and scientifically. In many countries, the study of languages, especially English, has become a key profession, helping the future success of a student and society. It seemed as if the status of nations and peoples had weakened; global corporations and organizations were about to replace them.

But now, as a result of the Corona plague, the borders between countries have been closed, and it suddenly became clear that countries have their own enormous power. Individuals began to realize just how dependent they are on the society surrounding them, and on their nuclear family.

Neglecting the Inner World

In summary, it can be said that together with the blessing of globalization, the economic and scientific prosperity and expansion of knowledge, the inner world has been neglected. This is reflected in all circles of life.

Countries and peoples have invested tremendous efforts in developing external relations, while neglecting, to a greater or lesser extent, their own language, beliefs and culture, with all their unique strengths.

On the face of it, one would think the nations that led globalization were not harmed by this. In some ways, however, they were the most harmed. Since their consciousness is primarily directed at branching out and expanding external relations, they tend to neglect their communities and families, and thus, a correlation can be found between the intensity of the globalization process, and the devaluation of the family's status.

The more a society emphasizes the value of global man, the less likely its sons and daughters will establish stable families. Consequently, the populations of societies fully experiencing globalization are declining, because the average number of children per woman is less than two.

It seems that this is reflected in the spiritual world as well. For decades, no great philosophers and writers have appeared; perhaps they exist, but go unrecognized because the process of globalization casts a heavy shadow on the spiritual world, and highlights only its external phenomena.

Arguments of the Left

I did not include in the negative side of globalization the left's claims of discrimination of under-developed societies, because economically, globalization has also benefited such societies, and with its help, hunger and poverty in the world have diminished.

Incidentally, all claims against globalization that it neglected the inner world, are true concerning the left, which emphasized the economy, and drained man of his inner, spiritual, and faith-based world. It emphasized the equality of all peoples, but at the same time, emptied nations and societies of their unique values.

As a result, in societies that have adopted leftist values, the status of the family has weakened no less than in societies experiencing global affluence. Nations who chose communist rule dwindled, or at the very least, did not grow demographically compared to nations similar to them.

Return to the Inner Circles

As with any event we experience, its meanings can be ignored, while waiting tensely for life to return to normal. However, the Torah’s guidance is to observe everything that happens to us, whether good or bad, in order to better understand our lives – with all its good and bad sides – and to draw lessons for the future.

It seems that the first lesson we need to learn from the Corona plague is to pay more attention to the inner circles of our lives. The lockdown that billions of people have experienced, forced them to congregate in their homes, giving them a chance to think about themselves, their lives, and their family members. And even more inwardly - the lockdown gave each individual an opportunity to pay more attention to his inner world, his faith, and the meaning of his life.

I will expound a bit.

Tefilot (Prayers)

We are accustomed to davening in minyans (quorums) in venerable synagogues, especially on Shabbatot and Chagim, to the point where it seems to us that without such surroundings, tefilah is not what it should be. But is that true? Isn’t the essence of tefilah man's standing before his Creator?!

When I chose to pray for a period of time be’yachid (alone), concerned that an attempt to keep the minyanim going would lead to violations of the health rules, I reexamined the mitzvah of tefilah and its halakhas, and found that the essence of tefilah is fulfilled alone, be’yachid, just as in a minyan. True, there is merit to tefilah be’tzibur (public prayer) over that of individual prayer, similar to the merits of the global world over the limited world of individual countries, but when one forgets the value of tefilah be’yachid, tefilah is emptied of a significant part of its content, and even when a person prays be’tzibur, his tefilah is liable to be hollow, ‘ke’mitzvat anashim melumada’ (done by rote).

Hakafot

Just before Simchat Torah, I debated whether to attempt to have hakafot (the ritual of dancing in circles around the Torah on Simchat Torah). I thought to myself that our situation was similar to that of a person unable to acquire an etrog for the arba minim (four species) for Sukkot: just as there is no point in trying to take the arba minim with a lemon instead of an etrog, so too, there was no point in having hakafot in which people could not rejoice as usual. All the more so when there is concern that attempting to hold hakafot would result in a violation of the rules intended to maintain health.

Once again, I reexamined the mitzvah of the Chag, whose primary goal is rejoicing in Hashem, in His salvation and in His Torah, and even when not among the tzibur, everyone is commanded to fulfill the joy properly, and increase his uplifting Torah study.

If one fails to rejoice and to learn, then he has probably overemphasized the external (global) circles in his life, neglected and drained his inner world, and must find methods to focus his ways, so he can be happier with himself and his family.

Education

Education, as well, has undergone a type of globalization process. We have gone from a situation where parents are solely responsible for educating their children and passing on the heritage, with the extended family and community assisting them - to a situation where teachers, institutions, schools, Talmudei Torah, yeshivas, and ulpanot are primarily responsible for education.

Once again we must return to the basics, where parents are responsible for education, and as Moshe Rabbeinu said to Israel before he died: "Pay close attention to all the words through which I warn you today, so that you will be able to instruct your children to keep all the words of this Torah carefully" (Deuteronomy 32:46).

Likewise, regarding the transfer of the heritage and destiny imposed on the People of Israel, as the Torah says "You must tell him, 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand….to bring us to the land He promised our fathers, and give it to us. God commanded us to keep all these rules, so that we would remain in awe of God for all time, so that we would survive, even as we are today” (Deuteronomy 6: 21-25).

Also, the mitzvah to teach Torah is first and foremost the duty of parents, as written: “Teach them to your children and speak of them when you are at home, when travelling on the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 6:7), and from that, it expanded to the Sages of Israel who were commanded to teach their students, for even students are called ‘sons’.

It seems that in recent years one can discern "creaks" in the education system, which rests on institutions, especially those with dormitories. The teachers and counselors find it difficult to harness students to study and prayer regimens, and we are required to return parents to their central place, as companions and guides to their children in Torah study and prayer, utilizing the community synagogues. To return to the inner circles.

In conclusion: Without relinquishing the value of the processes of expansion in all areas, we are called upon to empower and strengthen our inner circles, and consequently, merit focusing the individual and global expansion processes.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.



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