The Three Weeks are always a time for introspection, and COVID-19 makes this year an even more perfect opportunity. COVID-19 hit the observant Jewish community very hard in terms of loss of life, and has made a significant continuing impact on Jewish communal life. Some have asked what long-term lessons can we derive from this year’s events.
I believe that one major focus area should be middot, or proper character traits. Our Torah tradition is divided into three parts: bein adam lamakom, governing our relationship between people and God, bein adam lechavero, interpersonal commandments, and bein adam l’atzmo, rules governing our own character. I believe that the third part has been woefully underappreciated and understudied in recent years. This was not always the case. The entire book of Bereishit has only three mitzvot and is largely included to teach us lessons in character, both from the evil generations before Avraham and the righteous Patriarchs and Matriarchs. The purpose of the books of the Neviim and many of the Ketuvim (such as Mishlei and Kohelet) is similarly focused on mussar and bein adam l’atzmo. And the Talmud is filled with aggadata that are similarly focused on such lessons. Traditional yeshiva study for centuries incorporated the importance of mussar and character growth. Rav Herschel Schachter, for one example, continues to intertwine mussar into all facets of his shiurim and serves as a shining example of great middot such as humility and graciousness.
After the Holocaust there was an obvious need and an understandable focus on creating or reconstructing institutions, with great results. But as Orthodoxy has matured again in this country and around the world, I believe it has failed to sufficiently hew to the cornerstone of middot that underlies Yiddishkeit. For the past few decades, institutions and “the community” or “the klal” have continued to grow in focus, with new non-profits and communal institutions and programs being created all the time, while at the same time, disturbing levels of self-aggrandizement, application of raw power dynamics, cynicism and lack of focus on character traits and related mitzvot such as onaat devarim, ahavat Yisrael, and lashon hara. For many, “the community” had become something even to fear, and middot something that only people without something important to do need think about. The results are undeniable: A large percentage of Orthodox children of all stripes continue to give up strict Orthodoxy upon reaching adulthood, and an even larger percentage are less religious than their parents are. For those that remain, the shidduch and day school tuition crises loom unsolved. Until now, the answer has been that more “inspiration” and charisma can reverse such trends. I disagree, and note that it is likely no accident that the ranks of baalei teshuva have gone down and not up with the rise of the “inspiration industry.”
In response to COVID, I call for a renewed focus on mussar and middot development—topics such as gaava, gevura, sinah, ahava, zerizut, zehirut, and so on. Fortunately, it is an extremely cost-effective focus area. Lessons on middot are contained as mentioned throughout our Torah tradition and summarized in cheap, easy-to-read books such as Mesilat Yesharim and Orchot Tzadikim. Mussar is perfect for the socially distanced, with the real difficulty the hard work of coming to grips with one’s personal character flaws rather than having to go anywhere or start any organization.
I believe mussar and middot development holds the key to many of our communal challenges, and Jewish history tells us that failing to sufficiently focus on mussar and middot has disastrous consequences, from the sale of Yosef and the sin of the spies to the destruction of both Temples and beyond. What is Tisha B’Av then: a recognition that, stripped of physical mitzvot such as tefillin and physicality such as eating, our own unseen characters alone fuel either destruction or rebuilding. Today, our institutions lie in at least partial Churban. Upon entering a shul retro-fitted for social distancing recently, it was hard not to see the resemblance to how a shul looks on Tisha B’Av, with the chairs. Let us use this year’s Tisha B’Av as a reminder to focus on improving ourselves throughout the rest of the year as well.
Rabbi O.B. Felsenthal is a yeshiva day school parent and an attorney. He can be contacted via The Jewish Link at [email protected]