The Chinese are known to celebrate their New Years by focusing on the character of a different animal or reptile at each New Year’s cycle. Sometimes it’s a dog, a dragon, a rooster, a horse, a snake, or even a pig. The year 2020 was The Year of the Rat.
This year, I believe the Chinese have given us the Year of the Rut. Thanks to the COVID pandemic, life has changed radically for countless people. Those who suffered the loss of loved ones will suffer forever, unfortunately. Those who were very ill might remain scarred physically and/```or emotionally for a long time. Of course, those who passed away from the disease are gone eternally.
Yet those who have thankfully survived intact still may suffer from a serious syndrome: the rut factor.
So many people have fallen into a rut created by their habitual ways during the height of the epidemic. Understandably, many are afraid to dine, socialize, react, and think the way they used to.
There is an interesting halachah mentioned in the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried, 19th century, Hungary) 72:7, pertaining to honoring the Shabbos. Among the list of suggestions, Rabbi Ganzfried writes, is the need to sharpen one’s dinner knife. It is intriguing that sharpening a knife would relate to honoring Shabbos. It seems that a dull knife sets a frustrating and dull environment. On Shabbos, we must feel keenly aware of the day; we cannot let the day be just another routine day of the week. Even a sharpened knife as we cut our challah or meat can make that difference.
In so many areas, society has fallen into some doldrums. For example, the TV audience of the Olympics was a bust. The few parks and museums I’ve been to are mostly empty. Politically, there is very little excitement in either direction. I even notice that people are watching gas prices soar, yet no one gets in a lather about it. I think people have just had it, and would rather just stay removed from any excitement.
Sadly, it has affected us in religious life, as well. The spark has been taken out of our davening to some degree. More importantly, so many former loyal shul goers have not returned to shul. If you press them, they will be honest and tell you that they got used to the idea of staying home rather than davening in shul. They are in a rut and cannot get out of it. That has long-term implications and must be addressed ASAP for their sakes and the community’s sake. Orthodoxy depends on shul-goers to keep it vibrant.
The Gemara in Kiddushin (20a) and elsewhere puts it succinctly: “Once you sin and then repeat the sin, it becomes as though there is no sin.”
We as Jews need to be very much on guard. Our antisemitic, anti-Israel enemies are surging, yet we are complacent. Our yeitzer ha’ra (evil inclination) is making huge strides as we sit still. Elul must be a time of reawakening. For those of you coming to shul, you can hear the daily sound of the shofar, which blasts that very message.
Let’s hope that we can make this next year, 5782, which is upon us, the “year of the lion.” That is what the very first halachah in the Shulchan Aruch demands of us. It will take some inner strength. But we must trap the rut.
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.