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Rabbi Kalmar's Sermon, Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei  25 adar 5780

"Why is COVID-19 Happening Now?" - March 20/21, 2020

It's certainly strange to share my sermon with you this way. Of course everything seems strange in the face of COVID 19.
So we ask ourselves Why? Why is this happening now? As people of faith we ask Why is God doing this now? What message are we supposed to learn? What is the purpose of this situation that confines us to our homes?
There are several possible avenues for messages from the torah portions of the week – firstly

וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה, אֶת-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל Vayakhel Moshe – Moshe gathered the people together. This idea of gathering together as a people is felt so painfully and critically during this time of forced separation. Perhaps there is a message being sent to us about the importance of being together?

A second possibility is a message about Shabbat – which is highlighted at the beginning of this week’s parsha. This current situation where we are not leaving our homes is forcing us all to live a more Shabbat like existence even during the week. And the rest of the Jewish people and the whole world really will be observing a Shabbat like existence this weekend in which meals are eaten together by immediate families, we do not drive anywhere and we have more time to read, study and contemplate. Perhaps there is a message in the Shabbat that we are being sent?

A third possibility is the message of Parshat HaChodesh, the special reading which first highlights the commandment of declaring Rosh Chodesh which really represents the idea that we are meant to sanctify time. The idea of how we use time is especially significant during this period dealing with Covid 19. How do we use our time? How do we keep our regular schedules? For different people the time issue is complicated and disrupted in different ways. For some who are retired and used to going out and doing all kinds of things, or for those who normally are going to work and now cannot and must stay home, there is a surplus of extra time. What is the best way to fill it?

For others, like those with children who are now at home, there is a feeling that there is a lack of time to get anything done. All of a sudden they have no time to do what they normally do. So perhaps we are being sent a message about the importance of using our time wisely.

All of these possibilities and many more may be the reason that G-d has allowed this virus to spread this way.

But of course we do not know. God’s plan is beyond our ken. So we do not know.

But something I do know. And the following story illustrates what I do know.

This is a story about Rav Zusha of Anipoli and his brother Rav Elimelech of Lizhensk, two of the early Chassidic masters of the 18th century. I heard this story this week in an address by Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, the Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshiva University and rabbi of Aish Kodesh synagogue in New York.

Rav Zusha and Rav Elimelech famously traveled the Jewish world, wandering from town to town and place to place sharing their torah and learning from others. During one of their travels they found themselves with a ragged group of people, some of whom were accused of theft and the entire group was thrown into jail – R. Zusha and R. Elimelech with them.
The jail was not a nice place and certainly not a sanitary place. The dingy dark dank cell was filled with prisoners who shared a large pot in the middle of the room which they used as their facilities. And yet, the brothers were together. They had each other.

At a certain point R. Elimelech got up and said to Reb Zusha – it is time to daven mincha – let us prepare ourselves to pray. At which point Reb Zusha said to his brother – Elimelech – we cannot pray in here – that pot in the middle of the room with its terrible stench prevents us from praying – we are not allowed to pray or study torah with that pot in the room. Then Rav Elimelech of Lyzhensk sat down and began to cry out of the bitter realization that he could not pray. Reb Zusha said to his brother – “why are you crying?” Rav Elimelech said – because we cannot pray. Reb Zusha said to him – I do not know why God has put us in this situation and is not allowing us to pray – but what I do know – is that when we are in a situation where we can pray – then that is God’s will and God’s command – that we pray. But now that we are in this situation – God’s will and God’s command is that we not pray! And since we are doing God’s will, we need to be happy about it. For if this is what God wants us to do, to not pray, then we are doing God’s will – and we need to be besimcha, we need to be happy doing God’s will. The two brothers were so inspired by this idea that they got up and began to smile and laugh and shout with joy! And they began to dance! This pot being here is God’s will – so we are happy about it! And they began to dance around the pot with joy and happiness. The other prisoners, witnessing this scene began to jeer and shout insults at the two Jews and to generally cause a ruckus. With all the noise coming from the jail, the guards came to see what was going on. When they questioned one of the prisoners he told them “Those two Jews are so happy about the chamber pot in the middle of the room – they are dancing around it!” “Oh yeah!?” said the guards. The guards were furious that Reb Zusha and Rav Elimelech were so happy. So they came into the cell and removed the pot.

The Point is – what I do know – is that this situation is where Hashem wants us to be right now. I do not know why. But I know that that is what God wants. So if this is what God wants – we do it the best way we can – we do do it bisimcha – with joy. We do it with hitlahavut - with passion and fervor. We do it by being the best Jews we can – and having the best Shabbat we can! And we do it by joining together this afternoon at five for some Pre-Shabbat Ruach with Ilan Eckhardt via zoom so we can see each other, or via the phone so we can hear each other. We need to dance around our situation – to do things bisimcha – with joy.

I know that often that is really hard. So we need to focus on the positives. We need to find the silver linings. Silver lining for me – “Hey! I’m off this Shabbos!” I encourage each and every one of you to think about the silver linings – the things you are finding joy in in our new normal. And I’d love for you to share them with me by responding to this email, and let me know if you’d be willing to let me share them with everyone – either anonymously or with your name attached – and they can be more serious and deep or they can be more light hearted and jokey. We all need to laugh.

So I want to wish you a joyous Shabbat. I will miss seeing you in person very much and catching up with you at kiddush. But let’s find the silver linings to our pot and let’s dance around it and feel the joy of doing God’s will. Shabbat Shalom!

Mon, March 8 2021 24 Adar 5781