Just as this crisis has helped us reconsider our priorities in our lives, it has helped reconsider our attitudes towards one another.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) tells that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi once had the opportunity to meet the Mashiah. He approached him and asked him when he would come to redeem the Jewish People.
“Today,” Mashiah answered.
Later, it was clarified that Mashiah meant he would come any day, as soon as the Jews are worthy of his arrival.
Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (Ukraine, 1740-1810), one of the towering Hassidic giants, wondered how it was possible for Mashiah to say that he was prepared to come already that day. After all, the prophet Malachi foretold that before Mashiah’s arrival, the prophet Eliyahu will come to prepare us to greet him. Mashiah cannot come until that happens. So, how could Mashiah tell the rabbi that he was prepared to come already that day if the nation was worthy – if Eliyahu had not yet arrived?
Rav Levi Yitzchak presents a very important answer. He explained that Eliyahu needs to arrive before Mashiah comes because “the people in the world are very preoccupied with worldly affairs…and very materialistic, bound to the vanities of the time.” We need Eliyahu to shake us from our excessive preoccupation with vanity, with trivial matters, to draw our attention and focus onto the real purpose for which we were brought into this world, so we are ready for the great sanctity of the Messianic Era.
The holy tzadik of Berditchev writes that as this is the purpose of Eliyahu’s arrival – to spiritually prepare us for Mashiah – we can, in principle, be ready for Mashiah even without Eliyahu. It is possible for us to prepare ourselves through some other means, to withdraw from the “havleh hazman – vanities of the time” even without Eliyahu guiding and instructing us.
A Time for Reflection
The Torah teaches us to be optimists, to find the hidden blessing within even the direst and most painful circumstances. We mourn and grieve when people suffer, but we also look for the precious opportunities latent within every misfortune, and try to seize them. And, we believe that all great achievements require sacrifices, some of them painful.
The extraordinary time we are now living through is fulfilling the role of Eliyahu Ha’navi. It has had the effect of diverting our minds away from the “havleh hazman,” and helping us redirect our focus toward that which really matters.
Of course, this has entailed great sacrifice. We cry together with the families of those precious souls that have been lost. We stand alongside those who have lost their livelihood and commit ourselves to sharing the burden along with them. And we also commit ourselves to ensure that these sacrifices and hardships will make us all better people.
For the vast majority of us, the coronavirus epidemic has brought most of our worldly affairs to a sudden, screeching halt. We have spent weeks at home, without the pressures of work. Our attention has been shifted. We have been given an opportunity to rethink our priorities, to reconsider what is really important in our lives.
This is a precious gift. The beautiful souls that have been taken for us will receive the greatest possible reward for doing Eliyahu’s work, for being part of this process of awakening us to prepare us for Mashiah.
Bringing Us Together
Eliyahu also has another job to perform.
Rabbi Yehezkel Landau of Prague (the “Noda Biyehudah,” 1713-1793), in his Tzelah commentary to the Talmud, discusses at length how Eliyahu will arrive in order to bring peace among the Jewish People. He writes that before the Exodus from Egypt, Beneh Yisrael achieved perfect harmony and unity. Unlike during the period of Egyptian bondage, when the nation was plagued by strife, jealousy, and discord, at the time they left Egypt, they came together in mutual love and devotion.
Rav Landau points to the tradition that the relationship between the Jewish Nation and the hostile peoples of the world is like that of a seesaw: when one rises, the other descends. When we are embroiled in conflict, competition and ugly politics, the enemy nations work together harmoniously, putting us at great danger. And when we succeed in putting aside our differences and bonding together in peace and unity, our hostile foes are torn apart by bitter conflict. Therefore, the Midrash writes that on the eve of the Exodus, a violent civil war erupted in Egypt. The Egyptian firstborns learned of the plague that would befall the country, and they took up arms against their leadership, who stubbornly refused to yield to Moshe and allow Beneh Yisrael to leave. In the merit of our unity, Rav Landau writes, our enemies were plunged into violent unrest.
The Maharal of Prague (1520-1609) explains that this is why the paschal sacrifice had to be roasted whole. The Jewish People are compared to a sheep. The paschal sheep remained whole to symbolize the fact that we earned redemption by remaining “whole,” bonded together in a single entity.
Rav Landau explains that this is true of our future redemption, as well. Our state of exile and dispersion naturally has the effect of keeping us apart from one another. Different groups of Jews live in vastly different regions, face vastly different challenges, and thus develop different ways of doing things. Naturally, with time, we should lose interest in one another and feel no desire to connect with one another. But just as when our ancestors were in Egypt, our redemption depends upon our ability to rise above this challenge, and to come together despite our differences. In order to earn our final redemption, we need to achieve peace, harmony and unity – and this, too, is the job Eliyahu is called upon to perform in preparation for Mashiah’s arrival.
If our community is any indication, this process of building peace and unity among the Jewish Nation is happening right now, during this very difficult time. We are coming together.
As our minds shift away from the “vanities of the world,” we are less troubled and disturbed by pettiness. Let’s do a simple exercise, and try to remember what was bothering us back in February, the “problems” that were on our minds. Maybe it was a family member, friend, or coworker whose personality we found annoying. Maybe it was a fight over some money. Maybe it was not being invited to some affair or function.
Now, we look back at those “problems” and see them for what they are – trivial matters that really should not have the power to cause us aggravation, or to cause us to drift apart from one another.
I have been receiving many names of ill community members for whom prayers are needed, as I’m sure most of you have, as well. When we are given these names, we do not start asking about what synagogue they attend, what schools their children attend, what they do on Yom Haatzmaut, which butcher shops they buy from, which rabbis they consult with, or what their opinions are on the “hot button” issues. None of this matters. The only thing that matters is that there are Jews in desperate need of help – and so we help them.
When Hatzalah members have been called, they did not first ask about the patient’s level of observance, how he or she dresses, which candidate the patient supports, or which subgroup the patient belongs to. This is all immaterial. What’s important is that there is a Jew who needs urgent medical attention.
In the Zoom classes that I have been privileged to teach during this pandemic, I have seen Jews of all backgrounds and stripes. I did not ask the participants to describe their level of observance or their ideology. I was pleased that there were precious Jews who sought to learn Torah, and I was honored to share words of Torah with them all.
Just as this crisis has helped us reconsider our priorities in our lives, it has helped reconsider our attitudes towards one another. It has helped put our differences in religious practice and outlook into perspective. Of course, we should all follow our rabbis’ advice and guidance, and adhere to it with pride and conviction. But as far as our respect and love for others is concerned, these things really do not matter that much. There is no reason to dislike or disrespect somebody because their practices and outlooks differ from ours. The current crisis has helped us recognize this by pulling our minds away from the “havleh hazman,” from the silliness and pettiness, the small disagreements which obscured the larger picture. It has helped us see more clearly how we all are together, that we are committed to one another and are all part of one family.
Hacham Baruch Ben-Haim would frequently cite the sages’ teaching that when the Jewish Nation is united, and living peacefully with one another, without fighting, backstabbing or competition, then the Satan has no power against us. Even if Jews worship idols, the Satan cannot cause them any harm if they are united, as the verse states in Hoshea (4:17), “Havur atzabim Efrayim hanah lo” – even if Efrayim (a reference to the Jewish Nation) is attached to idols, the Satan leaves them alone if they live in peace and unity.
We pray that in the merit of our unity, and of all the countless, extraordinary acts of hesed that are being performed by our community each and every day during these trying times, we will be spared further hardship and suffering, all the grieving families shall find comfort, all the ill patients shall be cured, and we will soon be able to leave our homes and join together in festive celebration to greet Mashiah, amen.
* Excerpted from Rabbi Mansour’s recorded lecture before Pesach, 5780 (2020).