Over the past weeks, we have become accustomed to a new and disorienting vocabulary—pandemic, social distancing, quarantine, flattening the curve. Every aspect of our lives—religious, professional, social, and economic—have been turned topsy-turvy, literally overnight, with a suddenness and ferocity that defies description.
As we shelter in place, we are confronted daily with a panoply of emotions—isolation, loneliness, fear, alienation, physical and economic insecurity, to name just a few. And yet, amidst these enormous challenges we find the strength to persevere and to harness our faith as well as the resilience to strive and to thrive.
The pandemic has also been a time to think more deeply; to explore the forces that motivate and energize us; to appreciate the relationships that we so often neglect; to be grateful for what we so often take for granted. In isolation, there is greater opportunity to contemplate. I thought long and hard about the subject matter of my message for this issue of Jewish Action. How could I possibly avoid addressing the pandemic? But each time I considered one aspect of its impact, others came to mind. So I chose a different path, and now share with you several thoughts and reactions, wholly unrelated, except by virtue of the virus that engulfs us, and the modifications in our attitudes, relationships and behaviors it has compelled. So herewith are some random musings from corona quarantine.
1. Bracketed Crises and the Stockdale Paradox
Noted management guru Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, the classic work on excellence in corporate decision-making, devotes considerable attention to what he refers to as the “Stockdale Paradox.” Admiral James Stockdale became a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. He endured brutal years of captivity through a combination of profound realism and enduring optimism. The Stockdale Paradox, as enunciated by Jim Collins (and as recently commented on by Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League in the context of Covid-19 management planning) consists of two complementary (though, at first blush, mutually inconsistent) principles: (1) Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever that may be; and (2) Retain the faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.
I began my tenure as the OU’s executive vice president in the spring of 2014. Within weeks of assuming my duties, in April of 2014, we learned of the kidnapping of three Israeli teens from a bus stop at Alon Shvut in Gush Etzion. In a rare moment of absolute national unity, all of Israel (indeed, all of world Jewry) came together to pray for the safe return of these three young men. I traveled to Israel to visit with the Fraenkel family, whose son Naftali was one of the boys, to directly convey the fervent prayers of the American Jewish community and our solidarity with the teens’ families. To our great sorrow, our hopes were not realized when the three teens were found brutally murdered. In the aftermath of this heinous act, and the escalating barrage of missile attacks on Israel, war with Gaza (known as Operation Protective Edge) followed shortly. Several of our NCSY summer programs had already left for Israel; others were scheduled to leave imminently, together with Yachad’s Yad B’Yad program; still others were scheduled to travel first to Europe and then make their way to Israel.
What ensued was perhaps the most intense, anxiety-provoking two-week period I have ever been called upon to manage, as we struggled to relocate those already in Israel to the Golan, and divert the trips that had not yet left to other destinations. Every day, sometimes every hour, required that we make a new and difficult decision. We hoped for the best and planned for the worst. And, through it all, we never wavered from our fundamental goals of preserving the safety and wellbeing of the young people entrusted to our care, and the transparent and timely communication of our plans to their parents. The NCSY and Yachad staff worked tirelessly to accomplish these goals, and they succeeded beyond any reasonable expectation.
Fast forward six years. I frankly had not expected to end my OU tenure enmeshed in another crisis. The Covid-19 pandemic is a true disaster, a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. The cost in human life has been staggering; thousands of lives lost with frightening and bewildering speed and ferocity; friends and family left to mourn in isolation; shuls and yeshivot—the center of our very existence—shuttered; an economy left in devastation, millions out of work. And yet, throughout this crisis, the lessons of the Stockdale Paradox again guided our reaction. We hoped for the best and planned for the worst.
I marvel at the extraordinary ability of our professional staff to pivot from a direct services mode to a provider of outstanding virtual programming literally, in a matter of days. NCSY immediately shifted to virtual “Latte and Learning,” educational offerings and inspirational “flash mobs.” Yachad’s IVDU school continues to provide a daily curriculum to scores of students with special needs. “Yachad on Demand” offers a wide variety of social, educational and support programs across the globe. OU Kosher, in an amazing display of technological prowess, continues to certify hundreds of thousands of products and ingredients across the world. During the very hectic pre-Pesach season, OU Kosher provided Pesach guidance and product information for many who were making Pesach at home for the first time, and our OU Kosher web site received nearly 1,000,000-page views in the lead-up to the sedarim.
Our advocacy efforts—at the federal, state and local levels—continues unabated. The Teach Coalition and OU Advocacy aggressively sought to ensure that non-public schools and other non-profit institutions were included in federal and state aid packages; numerous calls and webinars were held to guide eligible shuls and yeshivot in accessing available resources. Teach NYS, along with its advocacy partners, successfully pressed the New York City Department of Education to provide kosher and halal food options to its “grab and go” meal pick-up program. OU Advocacy was at the forefront of advocacy efforts to secure passage of the federal CARES Act, which included an array of financial resources for eligible not-for-profit institutions.
Our Synagogue and Community Services Department launched a daily Tehillim and chizuk phone call with hundreds of participants and maintained a robust schedule of virtual programming geared for seniors, parents and children. Programming including a wide range of Torah shiurim as well as arm-chair discussions and presentations on a variety of issues, such as financial and mental health topics. All Daf continued to provide meaningful and personalized Gemara-oriented content to users all over the world. Likewise, our Women’s Initiative rapidly and creatively expanded its unique program offerings. Its Cope and Hope program features classes with notable speakers over Zoom and focuses on ways for women to best navigate the crisis in their many roles; Counting Toward Sinai is now a series of forty-nine audio shiurim delivered by women, each focusing on a different aspect of tefillah; and Torat Imecha, a daily Nach shiur, continues to increase its ever-expanding group of registrants.
The OU Center for Communal Research will embark on a study of the impact of the coronavirus on Orthodox Judaism in the United States, focused on creating in-depth portraits of several affected communities, with a view toward developing constructive policy responses after the outbreak has passed. OU Israel’s Oraita, Makom Balev and Zula programs continue virtually, with advisors and staff in regular contact with participants. Likewise, our extraordinary network of campus-based OU-JLIC educators have had almost 1,000 virtual coffee dates with college students; taught hundreds of shiurim and chaburot for students and their family members; and answered almost 2,500 halachic questions—many related to Covid-19. And while we sheltered in place, 41 chatanim/kallot took chatan/kallah classes given by our OU-JLIC educators.
As I reflect on my six-plus-year tenure as OU executive vice president, I am struck by how it has been bracketed by crisis—not exactly what I had planned or wished for. But the lessons of the Stockdale Paradox have served us in good stead. We emerged from our first encounter with unanticipated challenges with renewed confidence and vigor. We have, and will continue to, emerge from the current encounter far stronger as well. Such are the lessons of confronting adversity while harnessing our abiding optimism.
2. Black Holes, Viruses and the Transcendence of God
While the world was coping with the pandemic, a team from Harvard University’s Center for the Fundamental Laws of Nature managed, for the first time, to photograph a black hole. Black holes are one of the great puzzles of modern physics; scientists understand precious little about them—their mass, how fast they spin, what’s inside their warped space-time continuum. Until this first photographic image was captured, science could only theorize abstractly about the composition of a black hole. But analysis of the photograph revealed a collection of rings of light (portrayed in the photograph on the next page) bending in ever-thinning loops as they got closer to the black hole’s “event horizon” —a “boundary” around the black hole which is the point of no return where matter, and even light, disappear into a mysterious void. As one member of the Harvard team put it: “As we peer into these rings . . . we are looking at light from all over the visible universe; we are seeing farther into the past, a movie, so to speak, of the history of the visible universe.”
The black hole whose image was photographed for the first time is larger than words (or even mathematical formulae) can easily express—a monster the size of our entire solar system. The coronavirus lies at the opposite end of the size spectrum of creation; it is composed of a handful of molecules. It is an RNA virus that typically enters human cells when its glycol proteins bind with proteins on the surface of a healthy cell. This tiny, microscopic organism has, as of the writing of this essay, been responsible for over 2.7 million cases of Covid-19 worldwide, and more than 200,000 confirmed deaths.
As this pandemic humbles our understanding of life, it brings into ever sharper focus God’s eternal mysteries. Black holes and coronavirus—both parts of a Divine plan that we struggle to comprehend. “Bidvar Hashem shamayim na’asu; uveruach piv, kol tzeva’am—By the word of Hashem, the heavens were made, by the breath of His mouth, all their host”* (Psalms 33:6). “Mah gadlu ma’asecha Hashem, meod amku machshavotecha—How great are Your works, O Hashem, how very subtle Your designs!” (Psalms 92:6).
God’s hand is everywhere, from the enormity and mystery of the physical universe to the microbial smallness and mystery of the coronavirus. All are His. We are reminded of the famous story related in Gittin (56b): as Emperor Titus was returning to Rome following his destruction of the Second Temple, a giant wave threatened to destroy his ship. Titus challenged God, claiming He only has dominion over the water but not over the land. God answered Titus and said: “There is a creation I have, smaller than all creations, called a gnat; this will be the cause of your demise.”
And so it is incumbent upon us to ask: What is God telling us by forcing us indoors, limiting our travel and curtailing our consumption? What is God telling us by requiring that we focus, almost exclusively, on our families and communities; that we contemplate our inherent fragility, the tenuousness of our existence and our impotence in the face of a contagion we can neither recognize nor control? What is God telling us by insisting that we consider the meaning and the impact of loneliness? Yes, gam zeh ya’avor, this too shall pass, but will we have internalized the most fundamental lessons of the experience?
3. For There Is No Night and No Day
“V’hayah yom echad, hu yivada laHashem, lo yom velo laylah, v’hayah le’eit erev yihyeh ohr—but there shall be a continuous day, only Hashem knows when, of neither day nor night, and there shall be light at eventide” (Zechariah 14:7).
The corona pandemic has spurred a panoply of frequently-asked questions: What caused it? How did it spread so broadly and so quickly? How, exactly, is it spread? How long will it take to develop a vaccine to immunize against it? What is the relationship between the pandemic and the dearth of paper towels and toilet paper?
But perhaps the question heard most often throughout our quarantine is—what day is today? The normal patterns of our lives have been shattered by stay-at-home orders. The rhythms and cycles of our lives have been dislocated. Days meld one into the other; day is night and night is day.
Researchers have identified clear behavioral changes in various groups exposed to prolonged periods of isolation—members of polar expeditions and astronauts, for example. In these studies, subjects are frequently lively at the outset, but spirits and energy can severely lag midway through an expedition. Days and weeks lose their delineation; productivity slows and relationships begin to deteriorate. Prolonged social isolation can produce well-documented physical and psychological tolls, including depression, dementia, heart attacks and sleep disruption. In part, these consequences derive from disruption of our natural circadian rhythms which are regulated mostly by exposure to light, but which can also be affected by the absence of particular social cues. As the Wall Street Journal recently noted, “[s]taying confined at home greatly limits external stimuli and can trigger a physiological and psychological response similar to the behavior of animals in hibernation. Study subjects—at the South Pole and in space—are apt to slow down, sleep more and get more forgetful.” Sound familiar?
In Zechariah, as noted above, the Navi describes a period of utter chaos and disorder: “V’hayah yom echad, hu yivada laHashem, lo yom velo laylah, v’hayah le’eit erev yihyeh ohr.”
It is an apt description of at least one aspect of the tumultuous upheavals in our normal routines and rhythms. But where there was once chaos, there is also hope. The Malbim’s commentary on this pasuk explains that there will come a time in history when we no longer will be governed by the natural order of day and night. Instead, Hashem’s light will illuminate the world, and our purpose within it will be clear.
4. Avinu Malkeinu
As shuls shuttered in the face of social distancing mandates, our rabbanim urged that we add Avinu Malkeinu to our daily tefillot. I found enormous comfort in these additional supplications—particularly in those portions that had never before resonated. I found myself pausing, with particular kavannah, over the words: “Avinu Malkeinu mena mageifah m’nachalatecha—Our Father, Our King, withhold the plague from Your heritage” (translation from ArtScroll Siddur).
So often, our prayers are circumscribed by our particular milieu, our unique and time-bound frames of reference. Before March, beseeching God to spare us from plague or epidemic was not part of my contemporary consciousness. I said the words, but was I truly moved by them to cry out for God’s mercy and benevolence?
The Gemara in Ta’anit (25b) relates that, during a period of prolonged drought, Rabbi Eliezer recited twenty-four different types of berachot in an effort to bring rain to the world. His prayers went unanswered. Then Rabbi Akiva went and davened for the amud. He said, “Avinu Malkeinu, ein lanu Melech ela Atah—Our Father, our King, we have no King but You.” Rabbi Akiva explained that it was not sufficient to ask a king to be merciful and provide rain; one needed to first approach Hashem as one approaches a father, asking for His love. Before “Malkeinu” comes “Avinu.”
As Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik writes, “The basic function of prayer is not its practical consequences but the metaphysical formation of a fellowship consisting of God and man.” We pray to bare our souls, in hope and longing for a return to normalcy. We pray to unleash the ever-merciful inclinations of the Almighty. But above all we pray to maintain connection with the Borei Olam; to renew and strengthen our bonds. As we socially distance, our connection to Hashem intensifies.
5. Longing for Return
I was enormously inspired by the following thought shared by Rabbi Yosie Levine, rav of The Jewish Center in Manhattan, on parshiyot Tazria/Metzora, during the worst days of the pandemic:
With eyes newly opened to the effects of disease and hearts newly sensitized to the challenges of isolation, what resonances can we find? . . . I, for one, am moved by an observation from the author of the 13th century Provençal commentary, Hizkuni. As part of his purification process, the metzora releases a little bird into the wild. And the question is why? It’s neither a sacrifice nor a gift. What’s its meaning? Hizkuni suggests that the procedure captures the feelings of the metzora: a creature cooped up who longs to be free . . . Once permitted to return to nature, the bird immediately seeks out its companions . . . Likewise, the person afflicted with tzaraat should be dreaming of returning to the warm embrace of his/her community.
As we have just celebrated Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron, Yom Yerushalayim and Yom Ha’atzmaut—all while confined to our homes—we pause to recognize the courage and resilience of our forbearers, brothers and sisters, who struggled and persevered, who emerged from challenge, hardship and despair with their spirits undaunted and their faith intact. Their stories, and their triumph over adversity, inspire us through these extraordinary times. We long to be free of our confines and return to the communities and workplaces that nurture us.
6. A Final Thought
I conclude with this poem, forwarded to me while I was penning this essay, written by Catherine M. O’Meara.**
In the Time of Pandemic
And the people stayed home.
And they read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still.
And they listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.
And the people healed.
And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.
And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.
May we all merit the blessings of good health, and the speedy end to this plague.
*Translations from or adapted from Sefaria, except where indicated otherwise.
**Poem reprinted with permission from the author.
Allen I. Fagin is executive vice president of the OU.