Return To TorahWeb.org Homepage
Rabbi Mayer Twersky
Mah Hashem Elokecha Sho'el Me'imach
"Yisrael are holy," and accordingly aggrieved over the
interruption of t'filah b'tzibur; some are even advocating that minyanim
be immediately reconvened. "Yisrael are compassionate," and it is
only natural that our rabanim have been touched by the pleadings of their
congregants; some even want to accommodate these pleadings. B'nei Yisrael,
however, are also "exceedingly wise". Accordingly, let us be wise in
our reflections and reactions.
[It is certainly true that the pain we are experiencing at being unable to
engage in t'filah b'tzibur is proper and fitting; the following is exclusively addressing the practical
initiatives being undertaken to renew minyanim right now. Our
prayer, as well, is that, with God's help, the situation will significantly
change for the better and thus warrant a p'sak halacha that allows for
the reconvening of minyanim.]
אָמַר לוֹ דְּעָלָךְ
זוֹ הִיא כָּל
זֶה הקב"ה אַל
Another incident occurred: a gentile came before Shamai and said: Convert me
on the condition that you will teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one
foot ... [He subsequently] came before Hillel [and presented the identical
challenging request]. Hillel converted him and instructed him: that which is
hateful to you, do not do to your friend; this is the entire Torah - everything
else is commentary. Go study! Rashi (ad loc) s.v. de'alach: "Do not abandon [He who is] your
friend, and the friend of your father (Mishlei 27:10)", this [refers to]
God; do not transgress His words...
The quintessence of Torah, then, is acting in accordance with retzon
Hashem, God's will. No facet of Torah - be it Torah study, tefilah, or
even love of God - possesses independent spiritual value and legitimacy per se.
The metric we use to evaluate the propriety of every action has to be
whether it ultimately reflects the retzon Hashem as delineated by the
Halacha at a given time.
By way of illustration, let us consider the following examples:
Torah study "equals all [mitzvos] (Peah 1:1)", and
"all that you yearn for can not compare to it (Mishlei 3:15)".
Nonetheless, at times, it is [with exception of mourning-related subject
matter] prohibited during the shiva period and in halachically-deemed unclean
areas. One who engages in Torah study in either of these two situations is
Tefilah, one of the loftiest spiritual forces in the world as well as
a telos of the world, is nevertheless
prohibited if one either feels the urge to attend to excretory needs or is in
an area deemed halachically unclean; in either of these situations, prayer is
deemed "an abomination."
In certain circumstances, an action - holy and exalted under normal
conditions - metamorphoses from a very great mitzvah into an equally
severe aveirah. Such determinations are contingent exclusively on their
fealty to retzon Hashem.
Today, we face a great danger. COVID-19 is an extremely contagious and, at
times, fatal disease. In general, when equipped with the requisite knowledge
and understanding of a dangerous illness, we are positioned to take all
relevant, possible measures, thereby, at times, minimizing, to a degree, the danger.
The opposite, however, is equally true; lack of requisite knowledge and
understanding increases the danger of such diseases. COVID-19 is a new,
singular disease. Accordingly, even infectious disease experts are operating in
unchartered territory in their valiant attempts to tentatively guide the
public. Indeed, the widespread devastation has been, in part, made possible by
our lack of knowledge and understanding of the disease and its dynamics.
Torah is the embodiment of retzon Hashem. While tefillah b'tzibur
is indeed a pillar of avodas Hashem, every schoolchild knows that it doesn't
override the obligation to safeguard life; it doesn't justify exposure to safek
sakanah. In the USA, given
the current state of the pandemic and our dangerous lack of knowledge,
assembling for tefillah b'tzibur contravenes retzon Hashem. Such
faux religious gatherings endanger the community, and, in the current
situation, transform what is usually a great mitzvah into a great aveirah,
One facet of wisdom is foresight. Even sincere attempts to design
social-distant compliant gatherings are dangerously ill-advised [and thus
prohibited]. They fail to realistically take into account the likelihood
[inevitability?] of unsuccessful implementation.
This truth is, and has been, evident in many different ways, and many
different contexts. To provide but one illustration: the organizers of the
recent funeral were well-intentioned and motivated by the mitzvah of kavod
ha'mes, according final respect to the deceased; they planned a
social-distance compliant funeral, and even received a permit. However, they
failed to anticipate the likely [inevitable?] outcome. We all know how that
episode ended. The deceased, zt"l, was not accorded final respect,
but unparalleled indignity. Tosafos (Bava Kama 80b s.v. Omer) comment
that we refrain from burying the deceased on Shabbos by employing the services
of a non-Jew:
נָכְרִי - Since it is unbecoming, disgraceful, and humiliating that [the deceased] is
being buried on Shabbos through a violation of Shabbos, even if performed by a
In our case, an inestimable indignity was perpetrated, however
unintentionally, when - for the nominal honor of the deceased - people were
exposed to danger and, additionally, a chilul Hashem ensued. Much to our
dismay, currently the only way to bestow final honor upon the deceased is
through very private burial.
Let us further bolster the point by considering the following instances:
And Shaul said to Shmuel, "Yes, I did hearken to the voice of the Lord ... And
the people took from the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the ban, to
sacrifice to your God in Gilgal."How did Shmuel respond?
And Shmuel said, "Has the Lord (as much) desire in burnt offerings and
peace-offerings, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better
than a peace-offering; to hearken (is better) than the fat of rams (Shmuel
"I" 15: 20-22). The exclusive obligation, concern, and fulfillment of avodas Hashem
is heeding God's word and will. Even something as sanctified as korbanos
becomes repugnant if it doesn't accord with God's stated will at that
אָכֵן יֵשׁ ד'
יָדָעְתִּי Yaakov awoke from his sleep. 'God is truly in this place,' he said, 'but I did not know it.' (B'reishis 28:16)' Rashi, ad loc, following Chazal, elaborates: "שֶׁאִם
כָּזֶה ...for if I had known, I would not have slept in such a holy place as this."
Yaakov Avinu, full of regret, was distressed at having inadvertently
violated the sanctity of the Temple site. One might wonder about Yaakov Avinu's
distress and regret; after all, he was granted a prophetic revelation during
that self-same sleep. Why, then, the ensuing self-recriminations? We see, as
Rav Velvel Soloveitchik zt"l incisively and instructively expounds,
that even the goal of attaining prophetic revelation does not justify contravening
ר"י אָמַר רַב
מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ - Rav Yehuda quoted from Rav: Welcoming guests is greater than receiving the Divine Presence, as is written (B'reishis 18:3): "And he said: Hashem, if I now find favor in your eyes, please do not turn away now from your servant".
Netziv, in his Ha'amek Davar, comments:
וּזְמַן - Rather, the proper understanding is that Avraham Avinu, at that time,
was completely immersed in love of God and receiving the Divine Presence. Now,
aside from the fact that it is a sublime pleasure, it is also a positive
commandment "and you shall love Hashem ..." as explained [in the
commentary on that verse]. However, if a mitzvah presents itself at a
time when one is absorbed in love of God, he is obligated to interrupt the mitzvah
of love of God, which [is unbounded, and thus] has no fixed time.
The Gemara in Shabbos (127a) reflects this principle in its
teaching that "welcoming guests is greater than receiving the Divine
Presence, as is written (B'reishis 18:3): 'And he said: Hashem, if I now
find favor in your eyes, please do not turn away now from your servant' ".
The intent is not that one who welcomes a guest is greater than one who merits
to receive the Divine Presence. Instead Chazal are instructing that
welcoming guests practically [i.e. not axiologically] overrides receiving the
Divine Presence. It is the will of [God], blessed be He, that a mitzvah
which is [currently, temporarily] actionable defers [the mitzvah of ahavas
Hashem which is unbounded both temporally and quantitatively.
Even total immersion in love of God is not always favorable - if one were to
defer welcoming guests, hachnasas orchim, because he is engrossed in
love of God, ahavas Hashem, he would have committed a sin, since
"that is the will of God, blessed be He."
I heard the following story from my brother, Ha'Gaon Hakadosh Rav
Moshe Twersky zt"l hy"d, who, in turn, heard it from Ha'Gaon
Rav Gershon Zaks zt"l: There was once an emergency meeting of gedolim to discuss potential
responses to a harsh, cruel governmental edict. The discussion continued
through the day until it was almost sunset. One of the participants suggested
that they should stop to daven Mincha. The Chafetz Chaim zt"l,
astonished, lovingly reproached him: "Mincha ligt ihr offen kup?!
Mincha is on your mind?!" The importance and sanctity of tefilah (prayer) is indeed
inestimable, and yet - in certain circumstances - it is forbidden to
- A similar story is told about Rav Chaim Soloveitchik zt"l. Rav Chaim encountered someone
who was compelled to eat on Yom Kippur for reasons of health and was saddened
by that fact. Rav Chaim asked him if he would be similarly saddened were he to
make a bris on Shabbos. Rav Chaim paused and then concluded: He who legislates
the performance of melacha on Shabbos on the occasion of a bris
bizmano, at times commands, for reasons of health, to eat on Yom Kippur! HKB"H who commands us to fast on Yom Kippur sometimes mandates that we
eat on Yom Kippur; HKB"H who commands us to desist from melacha on
Shabbos sometimes stipulates that we actually engage in melacha. Even
fasting on Yom Kippur and desisting from melacha on Shabbos are not, in
an absolute sense, intrinsically sanctified, spiritual modes. In the service of
God, there is only one factor: retzon Hashem.
- When I was young, I recall that it was widely reported that a prominent Jew
suffered a heart attack on Shabbos and insisted on waiting until after Shabbos
to travel to the hospital [and thereafter died]. I can still clearly see my
grandfather's (Rav Soloveitchik zt"l) expression at the time, and
how aggrieved and agitated he was over the disgracing and distortion of Torah.
There are times when God wants us to fulfill the mitzvah of desisting
from melacha on Shabbos, and there are times when he wants us to fulfill
the mitzvah of "take heed and watch yourself very carefully, u'shmor
nafshecha me'od"; who would second-guess Hashem's directives?
- On a different occasion, in response to an exaggerated, immoderate form of
marking Yom Ha'Atzmaut, my grandfather (Rav Soloveitchik) remarked that
it is possible to make an avodah zarah out of anything, even Eretz
Yisrael. Properly understood, he meant as follows: everything is conditional,
contingent; their value is precisely as much as is accorded to it by God. On a
deeper level, HKB"H is the exclusive source of any and all value
propositions. Idolatry r'l, essentially consists of conferring
exaggerated value or status on an entity, often resulting in the heretical
misperception that the entity in fact possesses an independent, autonomous
value. By extension, when we hold a mitzvah to have a greater value than
accorded to it by Hashem, thereby insinuating independent, absolute value, our
distortion borders on the idolatrous, r"l.
How frighteningly powerful and compelling: one can distort any mitzvah
or Torah value in a way that borders on the idolatrous. It behooves us to
reflect upon this seminal teaching and internalize it, so that we don't, God
forbid, violate it.
May the Merciful One place our lot with those who carry out His will.
The following is a translation of Rav Twersky's
Hebrew-language essay מה ד׳
translators take responsibility for any inaccuracies/infelicities. (Talmidim)
 See B'rachos 5a: "These (forms of suffering)
can (potentially) be considered to be trials of love (and not punitive): those
which don't interfere with t'filah"
 See Rabbeinu Yonah, Avos, 1:2<
 I am not sufficiently familiar with the facts on ground
in other locales
Translations from this section of Sefer Shmuel are those of Rabbi AJ Rosenberg zt"l (Judaica Press).
 Many translations of Chumash herein are from Rabbi Aryeh
Kaplan zt"l (The Living Torah).
 See Tur and Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 93.
 See Rav Avigdor Neventzahl's note to Mishnah Berurah 618.