By Rabbi Daniel Bortz
I hope this finds you and your loved ones safe and healthy. As I write this, we are being quarantined with our families, uncertain what the future holds for our world.
In darkness, Judaism urges us to search for light. Nothing happens in this world devoid of meaning and wisdom. With the coronavirus sending fear throughout the world, what are we being taught?
Firstly, we don’t live in a bubble — we are all connected, our destinies intertwined. All of humanity — from NBA athletes and Oscar-winning celebrities to the poorest farmers in Asia and Europe — are being affected equally by this virus.
In 1986, the Lubavitcher Rebbe spoke about the recent discoveries in atomic energy — how the tiniest quantity of matter, an atom, can unleash the most immense power imaginable. By simply pressing a button, a person could destroy much of the world. But, he emphasized, atomic energy could also be harnessed for a myriad of positive transformational uses across the globe. If it’s so simple through one action to cause such devastation, how much more is this true in the realm of the positive? One good deed you do can have a ripple effect across the entire world.
Another major lesson is this quarantine. When I look back, I have quarantined myself for six years already. Two years of yeshiva in Jerusalem, two years in Brooklyn, one in Toronto and another in New Haven — oftentimes I learned alone or with one or two others the entire day. I left a school of over 30,000 people at UCSB for schools with often less than 100, because I saw the incredible value in learning, praying, and working on self-development. In our loud world we can overlook how moments of silent reflection have the power to move worlds and shape how we approach everything in our lives.
There are only two places in the Torah where a person is termed “matzliach — successful.” Both times it was for Joseph – once after he was sold into servitude, and the other when he was framed and thrown into a dungeon. Both times he was forsaken and alone — by his family and seemingly by forces beyond him – and yet that’s when his actions are deemed to have been truly successful. He never gave in to the darkness that surrounded him or that should have consumed him.
Joseph believed in divine providence and knew he was placed in these situations for a reason. He saw two sad prisoners with him and instead of rightfully wallowing in his own anxiety and sadness, he asked them why they were sad. This caring led to his freedom and the fulfillment of his life’s mission as viceroy to Pharaoh.
Against our will, we are being placed in isolation and uncomfortable circumstances. Why? I can’t tell you. But I do know we are taught to see every situation through the lens of meaning and purpose. How can I best utilize this time to better myself, grow, and help those around me?
The word quarantine comes from quarantena, a variant of the Italian quaranta giorni, meaning “40 days.” Like Moses who spent 40 days on Mount Sinai learning Torah from God, may we utilize this unique time to learn, reflect, pray, and be a force of healing to others. All of humanity is in this together. Let’s never underestimate the power of one deed now’s the time we all need each other most. And may we all come out of this stronger, more elevated and more unified than ever before!