COVID-19 and a shule-less Shabbat

March 26, 2020 by Rabbi Chaim Ingram
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There is but one G-D.  There is not (as in certain foreign belief systems) a benign “Force of Good and a separate, demonic “Force of Evil”.

Rabbi Chaim Ingram

There is but one G-D.  There is not (as in certain foreign belief systems) a benign “Force of Good and a separate, demonic “Force of Evil”.  G-D is the architect of even those aspects of existence which we deem incomprehensible and at odds with our vision of a good G-D. The prophet. speaking in G-D’s name, anthropocentrically, in language that man can conceive, proclaims alarmingly “I create evil!” That’s how we see it sometimes with our limited vision. But if we could but view the whole cosmic picture, we would know that in reality G-D is All-Good as we indeed declare faithfully three times daily at the conclusion of the Amida’s Modim blessing.

At this immensely challenging time, all men and women of faith, particularly Jews as spiritual torchbearers of the world, must seek to find some positive meaning in the pandemic that is freaking out the world. What does G-D want of us? What is He saying to us?

Of course we do not know.  We need an Isaiah, a Hosea, an Amos to tell us!  But that need not prevent us from digging deep into our consciousness and attempting to find hope and enlightenment for ourselves.

A few days ago, I spent a unique Shabbat with my family. In keeping with most Australian Jews, we did not have a shul to go to as all the shules in NSW were closed on the very strong advice of our Beth Din due to the danger of we-all-know-what.

My family and I cherish fondly the rare Shabbats we spent on holiday in remote locations where there was no shul and we davened as a family. But this was different.  It felt eerie.  Here we were, in the middle of Bondi Junction with Jewish families and individuals all around us, but all of us in self-imposed isolation from each other.

Then as my son and I began Kabalat Shabbat together, I thought: we’re all in the same boat!  We’re all in this together!  Suddenly, far from feeling bereft, I felt somehow invigorated and connected to the rest of the Jewish community in a very powerful way.

We did a Carlebach-style, hand-clapping, body-swaying, harmony-filled davening that almost made us forget that we weren’t here at home, minyan-less, by choice.

On Shabbat morning, the Ingram shteibel began davening at the time we would have started normally.  I appointed myself as chief chazan and my wife and son were my select choir. (No restrictions on kol isha, on female choristers in this strictly-family Orthodox shtiebel!) Later my future daughter-in-law joined us for a dvar Torah-infused lunch and, after an afternoon of rest and learning, we enjoyed a relaxed seuda shelishit (the third meal) and a kumsitz before havdala broke the spell. 

I can’t recall at what stage the idea hit me like a thunderbolt but it doesn’t really matter.

I frequently have had mainstream-traditional congregants say to me: Rabbi,  I can’t walk to shul.  I know I’m doing wrong by driving but I love the shule service so much, I can’t miss it!   They know they are doing wrong so there is no virtue under those circumstances in rubbing it in. At least they know what they should be doing!

But this immediate past Shabbat, possibly for the first time in the history of Australian Jewry, nobody drove to Shule.

Now the beaches are ‘closed off’. So are clubs, pubs and cinemas, Only essential providers (such as supermarkets, chemists and limited petrol filling stations) are remaining open.  There is really nowhere to go, besides which people are urged not to venture out except if essential.  Gyms are closed. But for people not vulnerable or not quarantined, walking is still a pleasure that may be indulged. Walking is, of course, one of the delights of Shabbat along with eating, drinking, learning, praying and sleeping, all activities which are thankfully still on the radar in a family setting.

The coronavirus which is wreaking such havoc in society has provided for Jews an ironic spin-off. It is actually encouraging us, willing us, to keep Shabbos!

Ah, you will say, but there is still the temptation of technology!  But at this moment in time, is it such a temptation? Turn on the radio or TV, go online, you’re confronted with that hideous C-word at every turn!  There are no news stories apart from COVID-19. Phrases like “social distancing” “flattening the curve” and “slowing the spread” have suddenly become part and parcel of our everyday vocabulary.  In the latter part of last week, after the the decision was made by the Beth Din to close the shules, most of us NSW rabbis were morbidly glued to our smartphones, assessing the new reality, discussing new strategies to interact with congregants remotely, debating, arguing, analysing. Coronavirus had become king!  It had taken over our lives.

Never have I been so happy to be forced to switch off the iPhone and switch off my mind from the troubled world around me, embrace Shabbat and remind myself that G-D is King and Shabbat His queen!  I would imagine that most other Shabbos-observers were likewise uniquely relieved to be able to shut off their devices on Friday as twilight approached. And no doubt some of those who don’t keep Shabbos wished they had the mental strength to do so!

Technology has become a harsh necessity for everyone.  Suddenly it isn’t so attractive or tempting! A break from it is suddenly compelling!  And so nothing was standing in the way of a full-bodied, full-of-soul, halachic Shabbos!

Let’s all try as best we can to keep Shabbat this week and next.  What better way to enter Pesach, the season of our Redemption!

Stay well, safe, full of positive energy and full of faith!

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