Was that the Longest Year of Your Life?

Everyone seems to be talking, writing, praying, whining, crying and obsessing about COVID-19. As we say – by now only the lazy one didn’t say anything about it. I guess, I am that lazy one.

It’s been over a month since Rosh haShana, and only now did I get the guts to address something that has stuck with me since praying at the half-empty women’s gallery of Sh’or Yashuv Yeshivah. I have only been there a handful of times after my wedding starting with the last Rosh haShana, mostly attending Shabbatot and Yomim Tovim there. It’s a beautiful shul fit for both the yeshuvah students and members of the community that live in a walkable distance. It’s big. It’s gorgeous. It’s empowering. It has a tefilah when usually a thousand people are answering Amen to the brachot with one voice raising to the skies. The blessing of multiple cohanim brings you closer to your own soul and the souls of others really showing the power of tzibur. When the Rosh haYeshivah, a remarkably knowledgeable, and at the same time not overly preaching man speaks, one can hear every word, every sound, even, that’s how revered the silver bearded Rabbi is. You walk out of this shul in awe of your privilege of being so close to the Divine, it’s palpable.

This year was different in so many ways. The community has lost so many members despite the fact that The Rabbi was one of the first to adhere to the strictest rules of social distancing, cleanliness, masks, and all of that. The students were praying outside in a huge tent constructed for them. The community, many absent even on this Holiest of Holy Days, was represented by at best half of its real size. No children. No lady was trying, as usually we would, to get to the front line of the gallery to peek out on Torah during the Hagba, or on a husband or grown son. No-one moved around chatting in the corridor with a friend that they usually see only at the synagogue being too busy with the kids at all other times.

And then, there were prayers themselves. I can assume that many of us do not pay much attention at the words that indicate events and conditions that we deem long gone. Even the most pious of us, I am almost sure, never stopped in shock at the words: ‘Who by sword…, and who by plague’ – מי בחרב ומי במגיפה . What? Plague? I thought those ended sometime in the 16th century! But, people were crying all around me, some quietly, closing their faces with their sidurim, some out loud, like a guy downstairs that I’ve never seen – who did he lose during this horror? It’s hard to breathe through the mask, one could see plastic installations around the seats of some women I didn’t know, maybe older that most of us. No chatter, just really genuine prayers from the heart – please! please! spare us! How long, Oh, God?!

And then, There was my new Machzor. I finally bought one, where I could read in Hebrew, but glance at the translation or transliteration once in a while in the places I might find hard to read. And here it was, on page 784 – the translation said – ‘and crown You with a corona of splendor’!

There are, and will be all kinds of theories about this horrible disease. I am just going to leave it here to ponder. These days, as a humanity we got so sophisticated in killing each other, yet we can’t find a cure for a magepha that is killing the whole world! How is it? Is it supposed to be so, or is it a harsh way to show us that we need to do better, be a better people, all of us and each one of us? Or, is it a push by The Almighty for us to seek what we really need, closeness to Gd and each other? I have just recently started my studies at a Women’s yeshivah, and exactly today we were discussing the need, desire and possibility of closeness to Gd that seems to stem from suffering. Who are we, even the best of us to question the ways of Gd? And how can we see with our limited vision in our short lifetimes the beginning and the end of The Story?

I am just going to leave this beautiful, though a bit long piece of Talmud for your consideration (thanks to Sefaria for their enormous work on translations, and commentaries). Look at it. Think about it. As tragic as the time was then, it is hitting closely home to many of us. Are we seeing the similar magnitude of the suffering today?

תַּנְיָא, אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹסֵי: פַּעַם אַחַת הָיִיתִי מְהַלֵּךְ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וְנִכְנַסְתִּי לְחוּרְבָּה אַחַת מֵחוּרְבוֹת יְרוּשָׁלַיִם לְהִתְפַּלֵּל. בָּא אֵלִיָּהוּ זָכוּר לַטּוֹב וְשָׁמַר לִי עַל הַפֶּתַח, (וְהִמְתִּין לִי) עַד שֶׁסִּייַּמְתִּי תְּפִלָּתִי. לְאַחַר שֶׁסִּייַּמְתִּי תְּפִלָּתִי אָמַר לִי: ״שָׁלוֹם עָלֶיךָ, רַבִּי״. וְאָמַרְתִּי לוֹ: ״שָׁלוֹם עָלֶיךָ, רַבִּי וּמוֹרִי״. וְאָמַר לִי: בְּנִי, מִפְּנֵי מָה נִכְנַסְתָּ לְחוּרְבָּה זוֹ? אָמַרְתִּי לוֹ: לְהִתְפַּלֵּל. וְאָמַר לִי: הָיָה לְךָ לְהִתְפַּלֵּל בַּדֶּרֶךְ. וְאָמַרְתִּי לוֹ: מִתְיָרֵא הָיִיתִי שֶׁמָּא יַפְסִיקוּ בִּי עוֹבְרֵי דְּרָכִים, וְאָמַר לִי הָיָה לְךָ לְהִתְפַּלֵּל תְּפִלָּה קְצָרָה.

Incidental to the mention of the elevated significance of the night watches, the Gemara cites a related story: It was taught in a baraita that Rabbi Yosei said: I was once walking along the road when I entered the ruins of an old, abandoned building among the ruins of Jerusalem in order to pray. I noticed that Elijah, of blessed memory, came and guarded the entrance for me and waited at the entrance until I finished my prayer. When I finished praying and exited the ruin, Elijah said to me, deferentially as one would address a Rabbi: Greetings to you, my Rabbi. I answered him: Greetings to you, my Rabbi, my teacher. And Elijah said to me: My son, why did you enter this ruin? I said to him: In order to pray. And Elijah said to me: You should have prayed on the road. And I said to him: I was unable to pray along the road, because I was afraid that I might be interrupted by travelers and would be unable to focus. Elijah said to me: You should have recited the abbreviated prayer instituted for just such circumstances.

בְּאוֹתָהּ שָׁעָה לָמַדְתִּי מִמֶּנּוּ שְׁלֹשָׁה דְּבָרִים: לָמַדְתִּי שֶׁאֵין נִכְנָסִין לְחוּרְבָּה, וְלָמַדְתִּי שֶׁמִּתְפַּלְּלִין בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וְלָמַדְתִּי שֶׁהַמִּתְפַּלֵּל בְּדֶרֶךְ מִתְפַּלֵּל תְּפִלָּה קְצָרָה.

Rabbi Yosei concluded: At that time, from that brief exchange, I learned from him, three things: I learned that one may not enter a ruin; and I learned that one need not enter a building to pray, but he may pray along the road; and I learned that one who prays along the road recites an abbreviated prayer so that he may maintain his focus.

וְאָמַר לִי: בְּנִי, מָה קוֹל שָׁמַעְתָּ בְּחוּרְבָּה זוֹ? וְאָמַרְתִּי לוֹ: שָׁמַעְתִּי בַּת קוֹל שֶׁמְּנַהֶמֶת כְּיוֹנָה וְאוֹמֶרֶת: ״אוֹי לְבָנִים שֶׁבַּעֲוֹנוֹתֵיהֶם הֶחֱרַבְתִּי אֶת בֵּיתִי וְשָׂרַפְתִּי אֶת הֵיכָלִי וְהִגְלִיתִים לְבֵין הָאוּמּוֹת״. וְאָמַר לִי: חַיֶּיךָ וְחַיֵּי רֹאשְׁךָ, לֹא שָׁעָה זוֹ בִּלְבַד אוֹמֶרֶת כָּךְ, אֶלָּא בְּכָל יוֹם וָיוֹם, שָׁלֹשׁ פְּעָמִים אוֹמֶרֶת כָּךְ. וְלֹא זוֹ בִּלְבַד אֶלָּא, בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁיִּשְׂרָאֵל נִכְנָסִין לְבָתֵּי כְּנֵסִיּוֹת וּלְבָתֵּי מִדְרָשׁוֹת וְעוֹנִין ״יְהֵא שְׁמֵיהּ הַגָּדוֹל מְבֹורָךְ״, הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מְנַעְנֵעַ רֹאשׁוֹ, וְאוֹמֵר: אַשְׁרֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ שֶׁמְּקַלְּסִין אוֹתוֹ בְּבֵיתוֹ כָּךְ, מַה לּוֹ לָאָב שֶׁהִגְלָה אֶת בָּנָיו, וְאוֹי לָהֶם לַבָּנִים שֶׁגָּלוּ מֵעַל שׁוּלְחַן אֲבִיהֶם.

And after this introduction, Elijah said to me: What voice did you hear in that ruin?
I responded: I heard a Heavenly voice, like an echo of that roar of the Holy One, Blessed be He (Maharsha), cooing like a dove and saying: Woe to the children, due to whose sins I destroyed My house, burned My Temple, and exiled them among the nations.
And Elijah said to me: By your life and by your head, not only did that voice cry out in that moment, but it cries out three times each and every day. Moreover, any time that God’s greatness is evoked, such as when Israel enters synagogues and study halls and answers in the kaddish prayer, May His great name be blessed, the Holy One, Blessed be He, shakes His head and says: Happy is the king who is thus praised in his house. When the Temple stood, this praise was recited there, but now: How great is the pain of the father who exiled his children, and woe to the children who were exiled from their father’s table, as their pain only adds to that of their father (Rabbi Shem Tov ibn Shaprut).

Today, is apparently the yortzait of a Holy Man. I learned this too today thanks to R. Dan Smokler. The man, Rav Shapiro, perished but left his legacy to us. Let’s think about all these souls that left too early, be it in the Warsaw Ghetto, like Aish Kodesh, or like a father of one my friends – alone in the sealed out block of the hospital. Let us think of them, and still be prepared to praise The Lord, Whose ways we cannot grasp.

What do I wish for today? Maybe to just be able to hear the Voice of Gd even in the ruins, with our broken, and hopefully, kinder hearts. May we be worthy of such a revelation.

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