The past year has been filled with challenges. With each storm cloud there is a silver lining. One of the silver linings in the Bergen County community has been the unprecedented level of communal unity. From the very beginning of the pandemic, our community has rallied together. Shuls acted in unison to close in March of 2020 and months later opened together, cautiously and deliberately. While each shul followed the guidance of its medical committee, there was a general commitment to acting in lockstep. I am proud that the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County led our community with Torah values and science-based guidance.
While it is premature to claim victory against the coronavirus, we have, thank God, made great strides. We are now confronted with an additional set of challenges. Can our communal sense of unity sustain itself without the dread of the virus knocking on our door? Can we maintain a sense of cohesion as life slowly returns back to normal?
An interesting and relevant lesson emerges from studying the mitzvah of pe’ah. Pe’ah, the commandment for a farmer to leave the corners of his field unharvested for the poor, is highlighted in Parshat Kedoshim and again in Parshat Emor.
While the basic premise of the mitzvah is straightforward, there is an entire masechet dedicated to the intricacies of the law. For example, if a farmer grows two different types of wheat, must the farmer separate pe’ah for each species—in essence, creating two fields—or is it permitted to leave one set of unharvested corners for the entire field?
The Mishna (Pe’ah 2:6) notes that such a question was brought to Rabbi Gamliel, who in turn brought the matter to the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. The Mishna records the dramatic scene that took place at the Sanhedrin when this matter was discussed:
Nachum the Scribe said: I have a tradition from Rabbi Meyasha, who received it from Abba, who received it from the pairs [of Sages], who received it from the prophets, a halacha of Moses from Sinai: If one plants his field with two types of wheat but collects them in one threshing floor, he must only designate one set of corners for the field. (Translation from Sefaria.org)
Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, in his sefer Musar HaMishnah, wonders why Nachum the Scribe offers such an impassioned response. We know that the oral law can be traced back to Moshe at Sinai; it is not common, however, for the Mishna to outline every step of the transmission.
Rav Ginsburg suggests that there is a deeper lesson embedded in the Mishna.
Beyond addressing the question of two species of wheat, the Mishna is also addressing the following question: can two Jews of different types, backgrounds or persuasions live together in unison? Can they live in one “field” in harmony?
To this question, Nachum the Scribe responds with a resounding Yes! Yes, it has always been the case that Jews of different types have been able to live together. Nachum the Scribe specifically traces his answer all the way back to Har Sinai in order to underscore that the Jewish people have always had this sense of unity going back to the very beginning when the Torah was given. In every generation there have been Jews with different views and ideologies, but they have always found a way to live together.
Rabbi Yaakov Bender points out how unfortunate it is that Jewish unity expresses itself best during times of tragedy. When Jews are under attack, when there is a war in Israel, when we are subject to antisemitism, we seamlessly unify. And yet, once the acute situation passes and life continues as usual, it is difficult to maintain a connection with Jews who seem different from us.
Rabbi Bender recalls a particularly moving story to emphasize his point. A friend had to spend Yom Kippur in the hospital caring for his sick wife. When this man’s wife finally fell asleep, the man went to the hospital chapel to join the davening. In the chapel he found Jews of all sorts—some wearing knitted kippot, others wearing black hats and others still with shtreimels. They all davened together, united by a sense of sadness and worry.
Before Neilah one particular chassid stood up in front of the crowd and said, “We are so close, joined together in hardship and worry. We understand one another and have each other’s back, trying to help one another. But that is now, when we are all here. Do you know why? Because we are tzubrochen, shattered by grief! What happens when we leave this hospital? It will all be forgotten … that is the nature of life. So please, dear brothers, can we be mekabel now, as one, to hold onto this incredible achdus even when we are free of this place? Can we make it last?”
This story captures the essence of where the Bergen County community finds itself in April of 2021. We have reached an inflection point.
The past 13 months have been deeply challenging. We joined together and acted with an exemplary sense of unity. No matter the shul. No matter the political affiliation. No matter the level of religious commitment. We davened on our front porches, we waited patiently in front of the markets to enter and we assisted one another to help secure vaccine slots.
We now move on to the next leg of our journey. The discussion has turned to lifting restrictions and minimizing the impositions that the pandemic has forced upon us.
We now confront a new challenge. What can we do to maintain a general sense of community-wide unity?
Now that we have experienced the challenges of COVID together, we should naturally feel more connected to one another. From this perspective, our community has grown smaller; a sense of connectivity should permeate every corner of the Bergen County Jewish community.
I hope this connection will express itself in a multitude of ways. Here is one modest suggestion:
Going forward, we can focus on greeting each other with warmth. As we walk around our respective communities on Shabbat and Yom Tov, let us all make a concerted effort to smile and extend wishes of Good Shabbos or Good Yom Tov. With masks still necessary in public, even more effort is necessary to make sure our fellow Jews hear the warmth in our voices.
Rav Pam was fond of quoting Reb Yisrael Salanter who would remark that a Jew’s heart is a reshus hayachid (a private domain) and a Jew’s face is a reshus harabim (public domain). Our kind facial expressions and warm greetings can make all the difference in the world. After all, we have shared this traumatic experience that has created a strong bond.
Let us not allow the bond to loosen! Let us not only strive to return to the pre-COVID sense of normalcy but strive to emerge from this experience as a more unified and kinder community.
May Hashem continue to protect us and may we always be united by happiness.
Rabbi Zev Goldberg is the rabbi of Young Israel of Fort Lee and the president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County.