Rabbi Mayer Twersky
Rabbi Mayer Twersky

Mah Hashem Elokecha Sho'el Me'imach[1]

"Yisrael are holy," and accordingly aggrieved over the interruption of t'filah b'tzibur; some are even advocating that minyanim be immediately reconvened. "Yisrael are compassionate," and it is only natural that our rabanim have been touched by the pleadings of their congregants; some even want to accommodate these pleadings. B'nei Yisrael, however, are also "exceedingly wise". Accordingly, let us be wise in our reflections and reactions.

[It is certainly true that the pain we are experiencing at being unable to engage in t'filah b'tzibur is proper and fitting[2]; the following is exclusively addressing the practical initiatives being undertaken to renew minyanim right now. Our prayer, as well, is that, with God's help, the situation will significantly change for the better and thus warrant a p'sak halacha that allows for the reconvening of minyanim.]

שׁוּב מַעֲשֶׂה בְּנָכְרִי אֶחָד שֶׁבָּא לִפְנֵי שַׁמַּאי א"ל גַּיְּרֵנִי ע"מ שֶׁתְּלַמְּדֵנִי כָּל הַתּוֹרָה כֻּלָּהּ כְּשֶׁאֲנִי עוֹמֵד עַל רֶגֶל אַחַת כּוּ' בָּא לִפְנֵי הִלֵּל גַּיְרֵהּ אָמַר לוֹ דְּעָלָךְ סַנִּי לְחַבְרָךְ לֹא תַּעֲבִיד זוֹ הִיא כָּל הַתּוֹרָה כֻּלַּהּ וְאִידָךְ פֵּרוּשָׁהּ הוּא זִיל גְּמֹר (שַׁבָּת ל"א.) ופירש"י (שָׁם) ד"ה דְּעָלָךְ סַנִּי לְחַבְרָךְ לֹא תַּעֲבִיד רֵעֵךְ וְרֵעַ אָבִיךָ אַל תַּעֲזֹב - זֶה הקב"ה אַל תַּעֲבֹר עַל דְּבָרָיו כו'

Another incident occurred: a gentile came before Shamai and said: Convert me on the condition that you will teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot ... [He subsequently] came before Hillel [and presented the identical challenging request]. Hillel converted him and instructed him: that which is hateful to you, do not do to your friend; this is the entire Torah - everything else is commentary. Go study! Rashi (ad loc) s.v. de'alach: "Do not abandon [He who is] your friend, and the friend of your father (Mishlei 27:10)", this [refers to] God; do not transgress His words...

The quintessence of Torah, then, is acting in accordance with retzon Hashem, God's will. No facet of Torah - be it Torah study, tefilah, or even love of God - possesses independent spiritual value and legitimacy per se. The metric we use to evaluate the propriety of every action has to be whether it ultimately reflects the retzon Hashem as delineated by the Halacha at a given time.

By way of illustration, let us consider the following examples:

Torah study "equals all [mitzvos] (Peah 1:1)", and "all that you yearn for can not compare to it (Mishlei 3:15)". Nonetheless, at times, it is [with exception of mourning-related subject matter] prohibited during the shiva period and in halachically-deemed unclean areas. One who engages in Torah study in either of these two situations is sinning.

Tefilah, one of the loftiest spiritual forces in the world as well as a telos of the world[3], is nevertheless prohibited if one either feels the urge to attend to excretory needs or is in an area deemed halachically unclean; in either of these situations, prayer is deemed "an abomination[4]."

In certain circumstances, an action - holy and exalted under normal conditions - metamorphoses from a very great mitzvah into an equally severe aveirah. Such determinations are contingent exclusively on their fealty to retzon Hashem.

Today, we face a great danger. COVID-19 is an extremely contagious and, at times, fatal disease. In general, when equipped with the requisite knowledge and understanding of a dangerous illness, we are positioned to take all relevant, possible measures, thereby, at times, minimizing, to a degree, the danger. The opposite, however, is equally true; lack of requisite knowledge and understanding increases the danger of such diseases. COVID-19 is a new, singular disease. Accordingly, even infectious disease experts are operating in unchartered territory in their valiant attempts to tentatively guide the public. Indeed, the widespread devastation has been, in part, made possible by our lack of knowledge and understanding of the disease and its dynamics.

Torah is the embodiment of retzon Hashem. While tefillah b'tzibur is indeed a pillar of avodas Hashem, every schoolchild knows that it doesn't override the obligation to safeguard life; it doesn't justify exposure to safek sakanah. In the USA[5], given the current state of the pandemic and our dangerous lack of knowledge, assembling for tefillah b'tzibur contravenes retzon Hashem. Such faux religious gatherings endanger the community, and, in the current situation, transform what is usually a great mitzvah into a great aveirah, r'l.

One facet of wisdom is foresight. Even sincere attempts to design social-distant compliant gatherings are dangerously ill-advised [and thus prohibited]. They fail to realistically take into account the likelihood [inevitability?] of unsuccessful implementation.

This truth is, and has been, evident in many different ways, and many different contexts. To provide but one illustration: the organizers of the recent funeral were well-intentioned and motivated by the mitzvah of kavod ha'mes, according final respect to the deceased; they planned a social-distance compliant funeral, and even received a permit. However, they failed to anticipate the likely [inevitable?] outcome. We all know how that episode ended. The deceased, zt"l, was not accorded final respect, but unparalleled indignity. Tosafos (Bava Kama 80b s.v. Omer) comment that we refrain from burying the deceased on Shabbos by employing the services of a non-Jew:

לְפִי שֶׁהוּא מְכוֹעַר וּמְגֻנֶּה וּמִתְבַּיֵּשׁ שֶׁנִּקְבַּר בְּשַׁבָּת שֶׁנַּעֲשָׂה בְּאִסּוּר שַׁבָּת אֲפִלּוּ ע"י נָכְרִי - Since it is unbecoming, disgraceful, and humiliating that [the deceased] is being buried on Shabbos through a violation of Shabbos, even if performed by a non-Jew.

In our case, an inestimable indignity was perpetrated, however unintentionally, when - for the nominal honor of the deceased - people were exposed to danger and, additionally, a chilul Hashem ensued. Much to our dismay, currently the only way to bestow final honor upon the deceased is through very private burial.

Let us further bolster the point by considering the following instances:

  • וַיֹּאמֶר שָׁאוּל אֶל-שְׁמוּאֵל אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַעְתִּי בְּקוֹל ד׳ וגו׳ וַיִּקַּח הָעָם מֵהַשָּׁלָל צֹאן וּבָקָר רֵאשִׁית הַחֵרֶם לִזְבֹּחַ לַד׳ אֱלֹקֶיךָ בַּגִּלְגָּל.

    And Shaul said to Shmuel, "Yes, I did hearken to the voice of the Lord ... And the people took from the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the ban, to sacrifice to your God in Gilgal[6]."How did Shmuel respond?

    וַיֹּאמֶר שְׁמוּאֵל הַחֵפֶץ לַד׳ בְּעֹלוֹת וּזְבָחִים כִּשְׁמֹעַ בְּקוֹל ד׳ הִנֵּה שְׁמֹעַ מִזֶּבַח טוֹב לְהַקְשִׁיב מֵחֵלֶב אֵילִים

    And Shmuel said, "Has the Lord (as much) desire in burnt offerings and peace-offerings, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than a peace-offering; to hearken (is better) than the fat of rams (Shmuel "I" 15: 20-22). The exclusive obligation, concern, and fulfillment of avodas Hashem is heeding God's word and will. Even something as sanctified as korbanos becomes repugnant if it doesn't accord with God's stated will at that particular moment.
  • וַיִּיקַץ יַעֲקֹב מִשְּׁנָתוֹ וַיֹּאמֶר אָכֵן יֵשׁ ד' בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וְאָנֹכִי לֹא יָדָעְתִּי Yaakov awoke from his sleep. 'God is truly in this place,' he said, 'but I did not know it.' (B'reishis 28:16)'[7] Rashi, ad loc, following Chazal, elaborates: "שֶׁאִם יָדַעְתִּי לֹא יָשַׁנְתִּי בְּמָקוֹם קָדוֹשׁ כָּזֶה ...for if I had known, I would not have slept in such a holy place as this."

    Yaakov Avinu, full of regret, was distressed at having inadvertently violated the sanctity of the Temple site. One might wonder about Yaakov Avinu's distress and regret; after all, he was granted a prophetic revelation during that self-same sleep. Why, then, the ensuing self-recriminations? We see, as Rav Velvel Soloveitchik zt"l incisively and instructively expounds, that even the goal of attaining prophetic revelation does not justify contravening God's will.
  • אָמַר ר"י אָמַר רַב גְּדוֹלָה הַכְנָסַת אוֹרְחִים מֵהַקְבָּלַת פְּנֵי הַשְּׁכִינָה דִּכְתִיב וַיֹּאמַר ד' אִם נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אַל נָא תַעֲבֹר מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ - Rav Yehuda quoted from Rav: Welcoming guests is greater than receiving the Divine Presence, as is written (B'reishis 18:3): "And he said: Hashem, if I now find favor in your eyes, please do not turn away now from your servant".

    Netziv, in his Ha'amek Davar, comments:

    אֶלָּא כָּךְ הָעִנְיָן כַּאֲשֶׁר שֶׁהָיָה א"א שָׁקוּעַ בְּאוֹתָהּ שָׁעָה בְּאַהֲבַת ד' וּבְהַקְבָּלַת פְּנֵי הַשְּׁכִינָה וּמִלְּבַד שֶׁהוּא תַּעֲנוּג נִפְלָא עוֹד הוּא מִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה וְאָהַבְתָּ אֶת ד' כִּמְבֹאָר בִּמְקוֹמוֹ, ומ"מ אִי מִתְרַמֵּי אֵיזֶה מִצְוָה בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁהָאָדָם שָׁקוּעַ בְּאַהֲבַת ד' מְחֻיָּב לְהַפְסִיק מִמִּצְוַת אַהֲבָה שֶׁאֵין לָה זְמַן קָבוּעַ וע"ז אִיתָא בְּמַס' שַׁבָּת פ' מְפַנִּין גְּדוֹלָה מִצְוַת הַכְנָסַת אוֹרְחִין יוֹתֵר מֵהַקְבָּלַת פְּנֵי הַשְּׁכִינָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר עַל נָא תַעֲבֹר מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ, וְאֵין הַכַּוָּנָה דְּמִי שֶׁמַּכְנִיס אוֹרֵחַ הוּא גָּדוֹל מִמֵּי שֶׁזּוֹכֶה לְהַקְבִּיל פְּנֵי הַשְּׁכִינָה, אֶלָּא שֶׁהוּא גָּדוֹל לִדְחוֹת הַקְבָּלַת פְּנֵי הַשְּׁכִינָה, שֶׁכָּךְ הוּא רְצוֹנוֹ יָת' שֶׁיְּהָא מִצְוָה מַעֲשִׂית דּוֹחָה מִצְוָה זוֹ שֶׁאֵין לָהּ שִׁעוּר וּזְמַן - Rather, the proper understanding is that Avraham Avinu, at that time, was completely immersed in love of God and receiving the Divine Presence. Now, aside from the fact that it is a sublime pleasure, it is also a positive commandment "and you shall love Hashem ..." as explained [in the commentary on that verse]. However, if a mitzvah presents itself at a time when one is absorbed in love of God, he is obligated to interrupt the mitzvah of love of God, which [is unbounded, and thus] has no fixed time.
     
    The Gemara in Shabbos (127a) reflects this principle in its teaching that "welcoming guests is greater than receiving the Divine Presence, as is written (B'reishis 18:3): 'And he said: Hashem, if I now find favor in your eyes, please do not turn away now from your servant' ". The intent is not that one who welcomes a guest is greater than one who merits to receive the Divine Presence. Instead Chazal are instructing that welcoming guests practically [i.e. not axiologically] overrides receiving the Divine Presence. It is the will of [God], blessed be He, that a mitzvah which is [currently, temporarily] actionable defers [the mitzvah of ahavas Hashem which is unbounded both temporally and quantitatively.
     
    Even total immersion in love of God is not always favorable - if one were to defer welcoming guests, hachnasas orchim, because he is engrossed in love of God, ahavas Hashem, he would have committed a sin, since "that is the will of God, blessed be He."
  • I heard the following story from my brother, Ha'Gaon Hakadosh Rav Moshe Twersky zt"l hy"d, who, in turn, heard it from Ha'Gaon Rav Gershon Zaks zt"l: There was once an emergency meeting of gedolim to discuss potential responses to a harsh, cruel governmental edict. The discussion continued through the day until it was almost sunset. One of the participants suggested that they should stop to daven Mincha. The Chafetz Chaim zt"l, astonished, lovingly reproached him: "Mincha ligt ihr offen kup?! Mincha is on your mind[8]?!" The importance and sanctity of tefilah (prayer) is indeed inestimable, and yet - in certain circumstances - it is forbidden to pray!
  • A similar story is told about Rav Chaim Soloveitchik zt"l[9]. Rav Chaim encountered someone who was compelled to eat on Yom Kippur for reasons of health and was saddened by that fact. Rav Chaim asked him if he would be similarly saddened were he to make a bris on Shabbos. Rav Chaim paused and then concluded: He who legislates the performance of melacha on Shabbos on the occasion of a bris bizmano, at times commands, for reasons of health, to eat on Yom Kippur! HKB"H who commands us to fast on Yom Kippur sometimes mandates that we eat on Yom Kippur; HKB"H who commands us to desist from melacha on Shabbos sometimes stipulates that we actually engage in melacha. Even fasting on Yom Kippur and desisting from melacha on Shabbos are not, in an absolute sense, intrinsically sanctified, spiritual modes. In the service of God, there is only one factor: retzon Hashem.
  • When I was young, I recall that it was widely reported that a prominent Jew suffered a heart attack on Shabbos and insisted on waiting until after Shabbos to travel to the hospital [and thereafter died]. I can still clearly see my grandfather's (Rav Soloveitchik zt"l) expression at the time, and how aggrieved and agitated he was over the disgracing and distortion of Torah. There are times when God wants us to fulfill the mitzvah of desisting from melacha on Shabbos, and there are times when he wants us to fulfill the mitzvah of "take heed and watch yourself very carefully, u'shmor nafshecha me'od"; who would second-guess Hashem's directives?
  • On a different occasion, in response to an exaggerated, immoderate form of marking Yom Ha'Atzmaut, my grandfather (Rav Soloveitchik) remarked that it is possible to make an avodah zarah out of anything, even Eretz Yisrael. Properly understood, he meant as follows: everything is conditional, contingent; their value is precisely as much as is accorded to it by God. On a deeper level, HKB"H is the exclusive source of any and all value propositions. Idolatry r'l, essentially consists of conferring exaggerated value or status on an entity, often resulting in the heretical misperception that the entity in fact possesses an independent, autonomous value. By extension, when we hold a mitzvah to have a greater value than accorded to it by Hashem, thereby insinuating independent, absolute value, our distortion borders on the idolatrous, r"l.

How frighteningly powerful and compelling: one can distort any mitzvah or Torah value in a way that borders on the idolatrous. It behooves us to reflect upon this seminal teaching and internalize it, so that we don't, God forbid, violate it.

May the Merciful One place our lot with those who carry out His will.


[1]The following is a translation of Rav Twersky's Hebrew-language essay מה ד׳ אלוקיך שואל מעמך. The translators take responsibility for any inaccuracies/infelicities. (Talmidim)

[2] See B'rachos 5a: "These (forms of suffering) can (potentially) be considered to be trials of love (and not punitive): those which don't interfere with t'filah"

[3] See Rabbeinu Yonah, Avos, 1:2<

[4]Berachos 31a

[5] I am not sufficiently familiar with the facts on ground in other locales

[6]Translations from this section of Sefer Shmuel are those of Rabbi AJ Rosenberg zt"l (Judaica Press).

[7] Many translations of Chumash herein are from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan zt"l (The Living Torah).

[8] See Tur and Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 93.

[9] See Rav Avigdor Neventzahl's note to Mishnah Berurah 618.

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