May 19, 2024
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May 19, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

 Editor’s note: As part of our introductory note and column by Rabbis Strauchler and Fine last week, we present the first installment of the monthly ‘From Here to There’ column, a collaborative dialogue between Barkai and RCA rabbis.

Rabbi Yoni Lavi: Over the past two years, our world has been shaken. The COVID-19 pandemic swept through the world and created an unimaginable reality. Thank God, vaccines and drugs have been discovered, and the current health outlook is generally positive (although epidemics are deceptive and nothing is certain).

As believers, we must ask ourselves:

What does all this tell us?

How is God speaking to us through reality?

After COVID-19, will our world return to being exactly as it was before, or will we leave this experience “with great new meaning,” as the children of Israel left Egypt “with great wealth” (Genesis 15:14)?

Two years ago, Rav Tuvia, you came to Israel from Connecticut and visited my community in Petah Tikva, as part of the RCA-Barkai Rabbinic Exchange. We spent a lovely Shabbat together, and I planned to pay a reciprocal visit to your community. Then, COVID came. Two summers have since passed, and we await our next meeting.

So as we wait, here is my first COVID lesson: A little more humility. We are experts at making plans and controlling our schedules. COVID gave us a good illustration of the proverb “Every day is actually two days—the one that I planned for myself, and the other that God planned for me.” During COVID, we learned that things can change in an instant. We must learn to accept that with love.

And what did COVID teach you, Rav Tuvia?

Rabbi Tuvia Brander: How wonderful to talk with you again, Rav Yoni! How I miss sitting with you at your Shabbat table and meeting your family and wonderful community.

You ask critical questions for any God-fearing person to consider. I do pray that we never just ‘go back’ to our pre-pandemic lives; we have learned too many hard-earned lessons at tremendous personal expense, loss and suffering.

For me, two very powerful lessons stand out.

Before COVID, we lived relatively indulgent lives filled with space—ideologically, materialistically and emotionally. We could embrace so much while giving up relatively little in return. Then COVID came; our lives got smaller, our spaces more confined, our time, energy and focus more constrained. In those moments, as we pulled back from so much, we were confronted with a lack of space. The pandemic forced us to ask startling questions of what we were willing to sacrifice and what we were to sacrifice for. COVID forced us to more clearly define our values.

Second (and related), COVID taught us to seize the moment. Carpe Diem! I think back to all the plans that were postponed, rescheduled, changed and canceled. We learned the importance of jumping to connect with a friend, showing up for our loved ones, and taking the time to do that thing we have always aspired to do. COVID and the uncertainty you mentioned infused an air of zerizut—alacrity—into our routines.

As COVID (God willing) recedes, I hope we continue to hold on to our clarity of values and that we continue to act with alacrity to show up for loved ones and to pursue those important things we have long planned.

While we ask these questions on a personal level, we must also ask them from a communal, societal and national perspective. Rav Yoni, what messages do you feel COVID has left for our institutions and our communities as whole?

Rabbi Yoni Lavi: I’ll start big. Our focus on the pandemic has caused us to forget that there are quite a few other problems in the world. If we can mobilize as vigorously as we did for COVID, millions of lives could be saved. What am I talking about?

Every hour, 4,000 people around the world die of hunger and malnutrition; every day, 14,000 people die from smoking, 7,000 die from the damage done by alcohol, and 3,000 die of malaria. Rav Tuvia, have you heard about governments taking any drastic measures to stop this horrific mortality?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. There are “lucky” epidemics, which with the help of the media take the stage and gain attention, and there are those which do not. If humanity invested a tenth of the resources it invested in COVID-19, we could save millions of lives.

Another lesson I learned from COVID-19 relates to young people. When schools closed during the epidemic, schools switched to learning through Zoom. In the past, futurists predicted that online learning would replace school. The epidemic has taught us that this is a terrible idea. Staring at a screen is no substitute for human contact: a pat on the back, running together or just kicking a ball around.

I’ll share one more thought with you about epidemics and us. Abraham was given a historic task: “And [you shall] be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2)—to influence all mankind for the good. Since then, the Jewish people have had the privilege of “infecting” an entire world with many wonderful blessings: faith in one God, seeing the sanctity of life, appreciating the image of God in man, love for the stranger, responsibility for the suffering of animals, a vision of global peace, and more. Our mission has not yet been completed. The world must receive more “viral exposure” to love, compassion, kindness and hope. The development of modern media can help with this. The problem is that “bad viruses” have a tendency to spread much faster than “good viruses.”

Rabbi Tuvia Brander: Rav Yoni, your thoughtful response very much resonates with me! It reminds me of a powerful takeaway from our rabbinic exchange so many moons ago: the impressive way our Israeli colleagues approach their Jewish communal responsibility with an eye toward being a blessing to all Jews, all of society, and the entire world—well beyond the confines of our communities. Unfortunately, the ideal of tikkun olam is often scorned within our North American Orthodox community. As your words underscore, our communal priorities must never be limited to our own limited interests.

Another clear takeaway from our Rabbinic Exchange was the recognition of the strength of the Diaspora community structure. Across the Diaspora, our synagogues often are so much more than just buildings where minyanim or classes convene. They are centers of chesed and kindness, support and engagement, belonging and connection. They are onramps to Jewish living and portals into the Jewish story.

COVID showed us just how valuable these institutions are in our daily lives. As one member of my community quipped, “The difference between a membership at the gym and at our Young Israel is that the gym never called to check in during lockdown.” COVID helped us to uncover greater appreciation for the value synagogues can play in our lives. Part of the beauty of our communities is that we become much more than the sum of our individual parts when we come together.

Perhaps, here is the beginning of an answer to your question. You are certainly right; to paraphrase the age-old adage, “A ‘bad virus’ can get halfway around the globe before a ‘good virus’ can get its boots on’.” It is sometimes so much easier to spread negativity and so much more challenging to “infect” the world with good. Part of our plan must be to find ways to harness the power of our communities to be “super-spreaders” of our ideals.

Certainly, part of the solution is also keeping these dialogues going and continuing to connect and bridge people across our communities, our countries and the globe. I look forward to speaking with you again soon!

Representing Barkai, Rabbi Lavi is the founder and educational director of Chaverim Makshivim. He is a Barkai rabbi and part of the Kehalim organization.


Representing the RCA, Rabbi Brander is rabbi of Young Israel of West Hartford, Connecticut.

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