Friday, March 27, 2020

Quality Time Alone

Quality Time Alone
Thoughts on the Coronavirus
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As the people of Am Yisrael prepared for the fateful night of the fourteenth of Nisan, God instructed:
And you shall take a bundle of hyssop and you shall dip it in the blood that is in the basin and you shall touch the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts… (Shemot 12:22)
The great medieval commentator R. Avraham Ibn Ezra noticed the similarity between this command and the purifying process of the messora (leper), which God would later instruct:
The Cohen shall charge that there be taken for him who is cleansing himself two live pure birds and cedar wood and crimson stuff and hyssop…And dip them and the living bird in the blood of the slaughtered bird over fresh water. (VaYikra 14:4)
Ibn Ezra suggested that the similarity of dipping hyssop into blood in each of these cases hints at a shared essence.[1] How was the exalted night of “Pesah Missrayim” in any way similar to the lowly state of the exiled messora?

The 18th Century Hasidic leader R. Nahman of Bratzlav z”l spent much of his life preaching about the basic importance of seeking a “conversation with God.” He taught his followers to meditate in solitude – be-hitbodedut – as a way of connecting with the Almighty. R. Nahman advised finding a physical place apart from others and saying to yourself, “For the next twenty minutes, I will be alone with God.” He explained that even if there is in fact nothing to say, the very experience of spending time alone with God – aware of His presence – is still valid.[2]

Indeed, Jewish tradition has long stressed the importance of solitude to our approach of God. R. Avraham, the son of HaRambam, distinguished between an external and internal isolation. Whereas external isolation consists of physically distancing oneself from others, the fundamental state of internal isolation separates the mind from outward sensation and thought itself.[3] And the great codifier R. Yaakov b. Asher wrote, as well, how “Saints and people of deed…would meditate in solitude and concentrate in their prayers until they reached a level where they would be divested of the physical.”[4]

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l traced the significance of Har Sinai, God’s chosen place for giving the Torah, to Moshe’s earlier experience with God at the burning bush in that location.[5] “When God wanted to select a mountain for the public revelation,” R. Soloveitchik wrote, “He selected Mount Sinai, because the first confrontation, the first rendezvous between God and man, had already taken place there.”[6] R. Soloveitchik furthermore noticed that while we tend to focus on the spectacular heroism “on the battlefield,” there is another type of heroism, set out of the public. “Most mitzvot concern one’s private life,” he wrote, “No one watches; there are no onlookers. It is just a relationship between oneself and God.”[7] The “acts of heroism” performed in solitude enjoy the unique aspect of intimacy, absent from those in public.

Concluding His instructions for touching the blood to the lintel and doorposts of Am Yisrael, God said:
And as for you, none of you shall go out from the entrance of his house till morning. (Shemot 12:22)
In a similar vein to the leper’s isolation from nation in the wilderness – “outside the camp shall his dwelling place be” (VaYikra 13:46), God instructed every household to quarantine themselves. He commanded them to be mitboded – isolated and apart from others – for just one night.

It is a night of watch (shimurim) for God, for His taking them out of the land of Egypt, this night is God’s a watch (shimurim) for all Bnei Yisrael through their generations. (Shemot 12:42)
R. Avraham Ibn Ezra explained that Am Yisrael’s duty to “watch” on that night was similar to the way a guard stays awake and “watches out” to protect his city overnight.[8] But there was no city for the people to protect at that time. Am Yisrael was, instead, watching over and experiencing the night itself.

“It is a night of watch for God.” As God stood guard to protect and “watch” through the night, the people of Am Yisrael distanced themselves from one another. They spent the night standing guard and “watching” on their own –together with the Almighty.

Two weeks of social isolation have passed. Many more lie ahead. Instead of dreaming about our ultimate return to “normalcy,” perhaps we should seize this time as an opportunity to deepen our relationships with God. The solitude so suddenly placed upon us need not be an obstacle. It may, instead, be a potential.

[1] Commentary of R. Avraham Ibn Ezra to VaYikra 14:4, s.v. ve-ess.
[2] See R. Aryeh Kaplan, Jewish Meditation (New York, NY, 1985), pg. 95. Cf. Arthur Green, Tormented Master: The Life and Spiritual Quest of Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav (Woodstock, VT, 1992), pg. 145-148.
[3] R. Avraham b. HaRambam, Hamaspik LeOvdei HaShem, Perek Hitbodedut. Cf. Jewish Mediation, pg. 52.
[4] R. Yaakov b. Asher, Arba’ah Turim, Orah Hayim: 98.
[5] See Commentary of Rashi to Shemot 3:1, s.v. el har.
[6] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Vision and Leadership: Reflections on Joseph and Moses (Jersey City, NJ, 2013), pg. 77.
[7] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Abraham’s Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch (Jersey City, NJ, 2008), pg. 65.
[8] Commentary of R. Avraham Ibn Ezra to Shemot 12:42, s.v. leil. See, as well, Commentary of R. Shimon b. Semah to the Hagadah, s.v. ma’aseh.