Two Related Situational Thoughts April 7, 2020
Rabbinic Reflections April 7, 2020 Dear Holy Friends, I hope this correspondence finds you healthy and safe while managing this difficult experience as we head into the Pesach season. Rachel, my wife, as well as Danya, Leor and Nava, join me in wishing you and your families a most meaningful yuntif!
When I wrote in this column about a month ago, I shared about the evolution and flexibility of linguistics. In that previous contribution, I suggested that the opposite of social distancing may be called spiritual approaching. Today, I am recalling two personal instances of self -imposed isolation or “quarantine.”
Years ago, my brother (of blessed memory) began his Rabbinic career in a small town in upstate New York called Elmira. Back in those days, Conservative shuls were bursting at the seams and graduating clergy had to begin their professional careers in what were called “A Shuls.” An A Shul was a congregation that had between 0-225 family units. In many ways, it was an incredibly fulfilling experience to serve a smaller community which often expressed incredible gratitude for the presence and leadership of ordained clergy.
At the same time, we were living in Chicago and our synagogue was celebrating some sixty -five B’nei Mitzvah each year. Due to the hectic nature of my schedule, the only possible time to visit his family was during January break or March Spring break when there were typically no Simchas on our calendar.
For three years in a row, Rachel and I visited Elmira only to “self-quarantine.” Each three-day visit was interrupted by incredible snowstorms during which the town closed, plows could barely move, and we were all stuck inside for an additional four to five days. In March of 1996 I recall spending three hours shoveling so that the cars could hopefully navigate the stone cobbled driveway and head out to the local grocery store. The project was successful until an hour later when another foot of snow impacted our mobility.
We all had fun during those visits, but I finally figured out that travelling to Elmira in the winter for an unintended quarantine was not a great idea. Fortunately, our subsequent visits occurred strictly during the summer months!
My other experience with “self-imposed quarantine” occurred when I spent a Shabbat weekend with the Breslov Chasidim while studying in Yeshiva in 1983. The Breslover Hasidim see the study and fulfillment of Torah life as the means to a joyful existence, and their approach to worship is very personalized and emotional, with much clapping, singing, and dancing. Rabbi Nachman said, "It is a great mitzvah [commandment or good deed] to always be happy.”
Rebbe Nachman also placed great emphasis on Jewish prayer. Besides the regular daily services in the synagogue, Rebbe Nachman advised his followers to engage in hitbodedut (literally, "self-seclusion"), on a daily basis. Rebbe Nachman claimed that every true tzaddik attained his lofty spiritual level almost uniquely because of hitbodedut. The Rebbe explained that hitbodedut is the loftiest form of Divine service, and that it is virtually impossible to be a good Jew without this practice. During hitbodedut, the individual isolates (often in the forest) and pours out his thoughts and concerns to God as if talking to a close friend. The goal is to establish complete unification with God and a clearer understanding of one's personal motives and goals.
So, while spending that weekend in Tzefat I not only participated in passionate Jewish study, song and prayer, but I also spent hours and hours in the forest self-isolating and refocusing my spiritual strength.
During this period of communally imposed quarantine I pray that we can use this time wisely to connect with our immediate family, energize our inner souls and find meaning and strength through each experience that God places on our life’s journey.
Chag Kasher V’Sameach.
Please make sure to check out our online schedule of services posted on this website in honor of Pesach! All the zoom information is provided and hope to “see” you soon.
Rabbi Eric L. Wasser