When I was learning in yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael as a young man, I attended the world-famous Aish Discovery Program. Despite my growing up with a yeshiva background, it was an eye-opening experience. It was three full days of seminars and exercises with mind-blowing, enriching ideas to digest. One of the closing exercises was to write a letter addressed to yourself that would be mailed to you by Aish in three months. The goal was to remind yourself how you felt at the end of the Discovery program and to see if, after three months, you had changed because of it. It was a great concept.
The past few months have included many eye-opening experiences. A lot of things we took for granted were just… taken away. Now we may be on the cusp of opening up our society with some restrictions. Will I take away some lessons from my experiences? Will I be different?
The first thing I do when I come downstairs in the morning is look outside: I see the trees, the neighborhood and the birds chirping. I took all these for granted months ago. The pandemic changed all that. I’m still trying to figure out what is “normal” today.
Parshas Behar is referred to as parshas habitachon, the parsha of faith and reliance on Hashem. The topic of shemitah—letting the land lie fallow every seventh year—is central here. Can you imagine being a farmer and taking a whole year off? All the fields are declared “ownerless.” How can farmers survive? But Hashem declares He will take care of His people, including during the shemitah year. Our security comes from Hashem.
This pandemic definitely gave me new appreciation and hard lessons with regard to bitachon.
Parshas Bechukosai opens with a promise from Hashem of great material blessing for those who toil diligently in Torah study and fulfill the mitzvos. The rain will fall at the right time and the land will produce crops. There will be peace and prosperity. However, if Bnei Yisrael don’t follow these Torah ways, Hashem will impose the tochacha—98 curses of horrific tragedy and misfortune, terrible suffering and pain.
Any of the curses imposed will clearly come from the hand of Hashem. But the blessings—why will they not also be sent in a supernatural way? Blessings seem to come in the normal course of nature. Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk explains that the greatest miracle of Hashem is nature itself! We see it each day and think it is ordinary. But nature is an amazing phenomenon and gift from Hashem. That’s why we say the prayer of Ashrei three times a day and Hallel only on special days. Ashrei praises Hashem for all the good things He gives us each day, while Hallel thanks Hashem for overt miracles He has performed. The daily gifts—these require our greatest focus to recognize and appreciate that they come from Hashem.
During these pandemic times, a big lesson we’re getting is appreciating what we have considered “normal”—our schools, our shuls, our trips to the grocery stores and our Shabbos table filled with guests. Without Hashem’s consent, these “normal” things aren’t there for us.
Rabbi Yaakov Glasser recently spoke at a community chizuk program for the Passaic-Clifton community. One line he said really stood out for me: “People are saying ‘we are all in the same boat,’ but that’s not really correct. Each person’s boat is not the same. Some have many children running around trying to use different phones and devices for their classes. Some people are stuck all alone and wish they had children running around the house. Some have a very tense atmosphere.... Rather, we are all in the same storm together, but each of us is in our own boat.”
We are all learning different things right now and facing unique challenges. It’s not by chance that the timing of this pandemic occurs during Sefira, when we’re supposed to work on our behavior toward others and increase our Torah study. We hope the changes we are achieving in Torah study, improving character traits and appreciating Hashem’s everyday gifts have a lasting impact and create for us a “new normal.”
I would like to suggest to myself, and to you, that we write a letter addressed to ourselves now (without delay) about the convictions and ideas we have learned, that we want to tell ourselves in three months. By summer, restrictions may be lifted and activities returned to normal. Hopefully, the changes we are working on and achieving now will lead to a more meaningful and richer “normal” that we will appreciate fully each day.
Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim is the associate rosh yeshiva of Passaic Torah Institute (PTI)/Yeshiva Ner Boruch. PTI has attracted people from all over northern New Jersey, including Teaneck, Paramus, Fair Lawn, Livingston and West Orange. He initiated and leads a multi-level Gemara-learning program. He has spread out beyond PTI to begin a weekly beis medrash program with in-depth chavrusa learning in Livingston, Fort Lee and a monthly group in West Caldwell. Rabbi Bodenheim can be reached at [email protected] For more info about PTI and its full offering of torah classes visit www.pti.shulcloud.com.