HaRav Noach Isaac Oelbaum shlita is the rabbi of Khal Nachlas Yitzchok in Kew Gardens Hills and one of the foremost figures on Torah thought in New York. His lessons span the world and are held in the highest regard. Communities throughout the world are struggling to reason with our current predicament amid the pandemic. As Orthodox Jews, we seek to understand Hashem’s master plan and decide how we each fit into its web. HaRav Oelbaum delivered a formidable message to our community, which we bring here.
Hashem speaks directly to His nation to have His yearnings fulfilled. But what method could He use to reach us that we will take notice? Over the years, we have come to understand that current events are much more than regular happenings – rather, the hand of Hashem guiding us on our journey. Besides through the Torah, Hashem chooses natural disasters like floods or hurricanes to awaken His people and, in our time, the current novel coronavirus contains a divine message.
Despite what has been widely disseminated, we cannot choose one misdeed to blame the entire disease. This is not to say that smartphone usage, the Internet in general, or the laws of modesty do not need attention; but we must not choose one item to attribute our dreadful struggles of today and believe that if just one issue is avoided, we are in the clear.
In the times of prophecy, punishment would only be exacted if a warning was issued. Today, without such forecasting to guide us, we must instead focus on self-introspection to find the areas where we each battle. For some, this may require more stringency in kashrus, while others may feel they need better concentration in prayers. Yet other individuals may realize that they grapple with a need to guard their eyes from immodesty, including having unsuitable reading materials in their midst. Nonetheless, a person knows his or her inner transgressions; often two people or even an entire group may face a similar crusade. All people, no matter the age or level of affiliation, must come to understand and accept that they are their own greatest authorities to extort the truth.
Our current quandary is distinguishable from nearly every Jewish historical occasion. We all know the story of Purim quite well. Our wonderful nation was condemned to be destroyed and, although the situation seemed quite bleak, these were only decrees, but our spiritual needs were still very much intact; Haman had not taken away our cherished houses of worship. The Jewish nation rallied around intense prayers and a notable fast, further embracing our transcendent requirements.
The solemn messages of Purim are encoded in word play and irony, and Megillas Esther is seemingly absent of Hashem’s presence. The significance of the concept of hester panim or “the concealed face of a Divine Being” to Purim is documented in the fact that Esther HaMalkah never mentions Hashem’s name explicitly: “hasteir astir panai.” Our circumstances today denote a double hesteir panim. The first was the pandemic itself. The Gemara writes in Shabbos that one who responds powerfully, “Amein, Y’hei sh’mei rabbah m’vorach l’olam u’l’almei almaya,” has a decreed sentence destroyed and a harsh punishment can thus be annulled.
For weeks on end, the current quarantine has forced our sacred shuls to be sealed, redefining what we have grown to call essential as religious Jews; this is a second hesteir panim, leaving us with no alternative. Hashem has brought upon our nation pronouncements without a method for us to solve. Often, Orthodox Jews have sought s’gulah protections as remedies for our infractions. Many have pursued the advice of Kabbalists who offer resolutions with gifts of charity. But we must heed the words of the saintly Chofetz Chaim and simply follow what the Torah states. It is no secret that our shuls need a tikun – a rectification to change from the way they have been operating. Hashem is awaiting His people to make a clear kabalah – acceptance of a change – to alter the unprecedented situation. The Shulchan Aruch discusses how one can give musar and reprimand someone who continues to fail at a transgression. At first you talk to the individual and give encouragement to change. If the person still neglects in his ways, you can get to the point of yelling at a person to make an enduring modification. The shul is the lifeblood of a Jew, and if we keep quiet while immersed in davening, we might possibly be able to make a lasting impact.
This solution of stopping talking in shul is not intended to be viewed as the reason for the novel coronavirus. But taking upon ourselves a lasting change might very well be the catalyst Hashem desires.