One cannot imagine the indignation of our rabbinical, medical, and public leaders at the noncompliance of certain communities concerning the order to daven at home. This past Motza’ei Shabbos, hundreds of Bnei Brak residents poured out into the streets to follow the funeral procession of a rabbi affiliated with a hard-line anti-Zionist faction. Rather than to provoke a riot and possibly infect themselves, police officers were reluctant to enforce social distancing rules.
“We are having more than a few problems with chareidi society in areas like Bnei Brak,” Israeli Finance Ministry Director General Shai Babad reported to the Knesset on Sunday. On the same day, Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlita issued a p’sak halachah forbidding minyanim based on medical instructions to self-quarantine, and a person who ignores Health Ministry instructions based on trust in Hashem is a rodeif. Would the p’sak have made a difference had it been issued a week, or two weeks, earlier?
Likely not, where there are individuals who pasken for themselves. “When a funeral is limited to a minyan, what’s wrong with 11 men standing at a considerable distance from each other? Why can’t we have a guest at our home if both of us have self-quarantined for two weeks? I have no gentile friends; with our self-imposed isolation, how did this virus end up in our midst? The p’sak halachah does not apply to my situation.”
Last week, the Israeli Health Ministry noted that nearly a quarter of coronavirus infections have occurred in synagogues. Closer to us, five weddings were broken up in Lakewood by police for exceeding capacity limits, in a town that has the most diagnosed virus cases in southern New Jersey. Inevitably, there have been a higher numbers of coronavirus deaths in these communities, and more are expected to die of this pandemic for causes that were likely preventable, had their neighbors, family members, and leaders taken this virus threat seriously.
Inevitably, when the virus dissipates and our shuls reopen, there will be m’shulachim collecting on behalf of the widows and orphans of coronavirus victims, pleading on their behalf. Our community’s resources are already stretched thin, between Hatzalah, Tomchei Shabbos, Masbia, Bikur Cholim, and Misaskim, among other emergency service providers. Our local needs come first, but we cannot turn away members of the klal from beyond our neighborhood. We may never know how exactly an individual contracted this virus. Was it on a shopping errand? The turn of a doorknob?
The Mishneh Torah’s Matnos Aniyim (Gifts to the Poor) takes a strict view on individuals who purposely place themselves in situations of poverty. “Anyone who does not need tz’dakah but deceives people and takes charity money will not reach death in old age without having to come to depend upon others.” That such individuals’ actions lead to their own deaths, and the deaths of others, is not a reason for us to turn them away. This Mishneh Torah passage cites K’subos (68a) as its source. “Come and let us appreciate the swindlers who ask for charity that they do not need,” Rabbi Elazar said in K’subos. “Were it not for them, we would be sinning every day for failing to support the poor.” The punishment for individuals who place themselves in life-threatening situations comes from Hashem, not from our closed pocketbooks.
To close our wallets is to close our eyes to those truly in need. Prior to the quarantine, I observed tz’dakah collectors at Shacharis. Whenever I felt doubts, I looked at the gabbai and the rav who always had change ready for our visitors. That change connected them to Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Lakewood, and other places across the Jewish world. This virus is as global as our people. As we are connected by grief and social isolation, tz’dakah unites our people in a positive manner.
By Sergey Kadinsky