Sunday, March 22, 2020


Thoughts on the Coronavirus
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Dear Friends,

I am sharing with you a thought that has shaped my perspective during these past few days.

Realizing the fast approach of Pesah has been hard for me. Zeman herutenu, the holiday which celebrates our national freedom, seems blatantly out of sync with our current situation of helplessness. By paying closer attention to the halakhah’s fundamental interplay between hamess and massah, however, we might discover an inspiring vantage point for the days ahead.

While the concepts of hamess and massah might appear as so distantly apart from one another, the Torah dictates otherwise:
You shall not eat hamess with it. Seven days you shall eat with it massot, poverty’s bread (Devarim 16:3).
Noticing to the dual-mention of not eating hamess and eating massah in a single pasuk, the Hakhamim taught that the massah must be baked from grains that could lead to hamess. They thus excluded, for example, the use of rice massot.[1] Some authorities maintained, as well, that the rabbinic prohibition of eating massah on the eve Pesah only begins at the time that consumption of hamess ends.[2] The Rabbis likewise understood from this verse that women are obligated in the obligation to eat massah on the first night of Pesah. Although generally exempt from positive time-bound missvot, this pasuk hinted at women’s inclusion, since “anyone who is a part of not eating hamess is a part of eating massah.”[3]

It appears, then, that hamess and massah are closely related to one another. How strange! If hamess traditionally represents the yesser ha-ra, our inclination to do wrong,[4] it would make sense that the opposite – massah – should be kept at a distance from it. Why does the halakhah draw such a close relation between two concepts which should have seemingly been better situated afar from one another?

Following the final day of Creation, the Torah stated: “And God saw all that He had done, and, look, it was very good” (Bereshit 1:31). The Hakhamim had a novel, yet counterintuitive interpretation to the “very good” of Creation: “R. Shemuel b. Nahman said…this is the yesser ha-ra.” The Rabbis were incredulous! How could “very good” refer to the very basis of “bad” in this world – the evil inclination? But the Midrash explained that if the world was bereft of all yesser ha-ra, existing instead in a state of absolute piety and sainthood, it would quickly fall into a state of disuse and deterioration. Ironically, it is only by means of the evil inclination – when positively manipulated – that human beings are productive by building homes, having children and making money.[5]

Erasing the stark division between “good” and “bad,” the Hakhamim forced us to realize the delicate interplay between the two. They explained that the light of goodness is actually dimmed when isolated from bad. It is, instead, the seemingly “evil” challenges of life that bring forth its glow. Our potentials are manifested best when forced to emerge from the straits of difficulty.

Estelle Frankel noticed that the natural world, as well, tends to blur the distinct boundaries between “good” and “bad.” Cholesterol, for example, comes in two forms – one that is primarily good (HDL) and another that is primarily bad (LDL). Yet even the so-called “bad” cholesterol is necessary for cell growth and without it you would die. Frankel remarked: “In human physiology and in the natural world, cutting-edge thought defines optimal health as the dynamic balance of good and bad elements, not the eradication of something that is wholly ‘bad’.”[6]

Pointing to the Torah’s paired-mention of hamess and massah, the Hakhamim highlighted their codependence. They taught that “goodness” cannot exist in a vacuous realm, apart from bad. A dough that avoids the challenge of rising to hamess is not a kosher massah. Genuine goodness must instead emerge from within a world of challenges. Massat missvah must conquer the test of rising, coming into being through a courageous defeat of difficulty.

Our world is currently submerged in a sea of viral threats. It feels at this time as if we can only see the evil side of Creation’s “very good.” We constantly behold the rampant “risen dough” of hamess in our midst. Our mission, however, is to begin searching for the positive which is latent in this challenge. The difficulties will awaken a strength that lies dormant in each of us. It will actualize our yesser ha-tov – our massah, and help us come out stronger than we went in.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

[1] Pesahim 35a.
[2] See Ba’al HaMaor to Pesahim 43a and Perush HaRan ad loc.
[3] Pesahim 43b.
[4] Berakhot 17a and Commentary of Rashi ad loc, s.v. se’or.
[5] Bereshit Rabah 9:7.
[6] Estelle Frankel, Sacred Therapy: Jewish Spiritual Teachings on Emotional Healing and Inner Wholeness (Boston, MA, 2003), pg. 234.