I had planned to write on a number of different topics over the past few weeks. But with the outbreak and spread of the coronavirus, the subjects I had planned to write about have paled into insignificance.
Over the past few weeks, we have read in the Torah about the construction of the Mishkan and more specifically the Aron Kodesh. We are told that the Aron was topped by two “cherubim” whose wings were lifted upwards and faced each other. We learn in the Midrash that when the Jews followed in the way of Hashem, the cherubim indeed faced each other. But when Hashem was angry with us, the cherubim had their backs to each other. We are faced with a plague that is forcing us to turn our backs on each other, to separate ourselves from our friends and even our families. And we have been turned away from the house of Hashem as the shuls have been closed. Why is Hashem angry at us? Why has He closed the shuls? The answer is to be found not by pointing fingers at others but by each of us looking into our own hearts.
I have been davening with a minyan three times every day for well over 50 years. At the last Maariv before my shul closed, I answered to Barchu and Kaddish with special fervor. When I came home, I burst into tears not knowing when I will be able to daven with a minyan again. Did I daven with kavanah when I went to shul? The answer at best is sometimes. There were all too many occasions when I mouthed the words while my mind was elsewhere. I believe that there is value in going to shul, and davening with a minyan has value even when we don’t have the proper kavanah. The very fact that we take the time to do it when we might prefer to be elsewhere shows that we know it is the right thing to do. The person who davens every day will at least sometimes daven with kavanah. But each time we daven without the proper kavanah is also a missed opportunity. Too often we treat the minyan as a burden to be dispensed with before moving on to other pursuits important or trivial. Now that the shuls have been taken away from us, I hope we will come to appreciate what we are missing and to use the opportunity to come to Hashem’s home as the great privilege that it is and to use it to its full potential.
The holiday of Pesach is fast approaching. We are busily cleaning our homes and buying foods with only the strictest of hechsherim to avoid even the slightest bit of chametz. We do so because we are forbidden to eat, or own, or derive any benefit from chametz during Pesach. One can prepare the finest of dishes with enough to feed an army, and a minute amount of chametz will make it forbidden to derive any benefit from the food.
The Gemara in B’rachos 17a relates that Rav Alexandri used to say, “Ribbono shel olam, it is known to You that we wish to carry out your will, and what prevents us? The leaven in the dough.” Rashi and others say that “the yeast in the dough” refers to the yeitzer ha’ra. Just as the yeast causes the dough to rise, the yeitzer ha’ra inside us causes us to sin. Just as we search every nook and cranny of our homes for chametz, so must we search every nook and cranny of our souls to eliminate the yeitzer ha’ra.
In Hebrew, the words matzos and mitzvos are spelled the same way. Just as matzos are the antidote for chametz, mitzvos are the antidote for the yeitzer ha’ra.
The coronavirus has something to teach us about why even the smallest amount of chametz is forbidden. One person in Wuhan, China, ate a bat or a snake. One microbe in Wuhan, China, that resulted has wreaked havoc in the entire world. Just as the tiniest microbe can have a devastating impact, so to can the smallest amount of leaven in the dough, both as chametz and as the yeitzer ha’ra.
If the power of one microbe is so great, the potential power of one mitzvah is even greater. With this we can understand why the Rambam says that we should always look upon ourselves as having the power to save the world with one mitzvah or, G-d forbid, to destroy the entire world with one sin.
If there is one thing positive that the coronavirus teaches us, it is that even the smallest person’s acts are significant.
We are no longer slaves to Pharaoh. But too often we are slaves to the yeitzer ha’ra. Let this be the year in which we break those bonds of slavery. As we remove the chametz from our homes, let us remove the yeitzer ha’ra from our hearts. As we eat the matzos, let us resolve to strengthen our performance of mitzvos. Let us celebrate and enjoy the real freedom that comes only to those who engage in Torah. May we all merit to enjoy a kosher, healthy, and joyous Pesach.
By Manny Behar