This week, I will take the liberty of sharing my Yom Kippur message with my readers. The message was delivered in shul on Kol Nidrei night to a limited audience davening in the tent on our shul lawn at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. But I do believe the message has to go to the broader audience during these times.
In the haftarah read on Yom Kippur, which is taken from Yeshayah 57, it states, “But the wicked are like the driven sea that cannot rest…” Rashi, in his commentary, explains that the waves of the sea roll proudly and form a crest on top as it rushes toward the shore line; and when it reaches shore, it breaks and crashes into the sand. The fate of the wave is witnessed by the wave behind it, yet that wave continues rolling until it, too, meets its fate and crashes into the same sand. So, too, are the wicked who see the fate of the wicked before them yet do nothing to change course.
“Wicked,” in the language of Chazal, does not necessarily mean “evil” as in violent, mean, or even unethical. It means someone who is stuck in his ways and will make no attempt to mend his (or her) ways. For example, the Rambam (Hilchos T’shuvah 3:5) states that the good are determined to have a good fate for the year and the wicked are assigned to death. Those in between have their fate sealed on Yom Kippur. (See the Gemara Rosh HaShanah 16b.)
The age-old question is that we know so many good people, even tzadikim, who die, and so many evil people who flourish. The Ramban, in Shaar HaGmul, in the opening chapter, explains that good doesn’t necessarily mean a good person and wicked does not necessarily mean an evil person. It means that a person whom Hashem determines in His formulation to live the year is considered for this purpose as good, and one who after all is considered is determined not to live is considered for this purpose wicked.
As with the wave that crashes, despite witnessing the fate of the wave before it, the wicked are not willing to learn, even from catastrophic results of the very life it chooses to live.
With this in mind, we can readily refer to those who refuse to learn from the catastrophic results of not taking precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as wicked. Losing about a thousand Jews in the Orthodox community back at the outset was not lesson enough. One such person recently gave me a hard time about wearing masks and the Vaad’s position in restricting the men’s mikvah. He had all kinds of reasons to believe it is not nearly as serious now as it was back in the beginning. I told him that the same chochmah, or logic, that prevailed then in resisting closing shuls, etc., which cost a thousand lives, will be equally costly all over again, G-d forbid. Except that now we should at least learn from the bitter experience. But the wicked don’t learn.
A physician in a very respected hospital in the Queens area told me that the focus in study groups on infectious disease has been in recent times on the Orthodox community. It went from m’tzitzah b’peh at a bris milah, to anti-vaxxers for measles to the current non-masking during COVID. So you think your decision about how to distance or wear masks is your personal one? It affects dozens around you! And it makes the medical profession wonder about us.
My sister Debby Spero was at a family simchah a few weeks ago, and a cousin approached her unmasked. My sister, never one to shy from sharing her thoughts, told that cousin that he should not approach her without a mask. To which his wife retorted, “I guess everyone has to do what’s best for them.” Not true!” my sister shot back. “You have to do what’s best for everyone else.” That cousin’s community is now rife with COVID.
The attitude prevalent in some communities of not masking or distancing defies all logic, not to mention chilul Hashem. On my walk home from shul over Shabbos, I peered into one of the house-based shuls (I emphatically do not mean “Rabbi Wiesel’s”) and I saw that not one person was masked in the very crowded minyan. Young and old alike. I wish the rabbanim of that community would say something – anything.
I have received reports that many of the lulav-and-esrog sellers on Main Street do not mask. When asked to do so, they respond with chutzpah. It’s enough that they leave the street filthy with litter, but now they are help spreading disease. You can do your part: Do not buy an esrog set from any merchant not masked!
A chasidishe cousin of mine, who himself was on a respirator in NYU hospital for two long weeks back in April, told me that it is silly to listen to the “despised Mayor de Blasio or Governor Cuomo” now. “They will not dictate to us how we go dressed or if we open our yeshivos!”
I am no fan of either the mayor or the governor. But that is not relevant. We have to listen to the government when it is trying to prevent us from dying. I asked my Satmar-adoring cousin (whom I really happen to like) why it is that the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum zt”l, argued in his classic work VaYoel Moshe, based on the Gemara in K’subos, that the Jews had no right to rebel against the will of gentile governments in order to build a State of Israel, yet with this disease they are so defiant against the government. He wasn’t expecting that question, so I am still waiting for an answer.
At one point in the Kol Nidrei evening davening, we say out loud, “S’lach na, tefesh tiflus rish’ei amecha – Please forgive the folly of your people’s evildoers.” I guess we can at least conclude that we Jewish people are not evil – just very silly sometimes. But silliness can be wicked.
So, please, be smart. Don’t think about you. Think about me and the thousands like me who simply do not want to get sick. For many, the disease can immediately become life-threatening. Also, think about Hashem, too. I don’t think He enjoys seeing his name besmirched on the media or in professional circles.
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.