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A Novel Recovery

the.guard Wednesday, 01 April 2020
A Novel Recovery

Recently there was a dilemma faced by a Chasidic doctor who could not wear his protective mask as required because his beard was in the way. Chasidic Jews—for religious, mystical, and spiritual reasons—are very careful about not shaving, or even trimming, their beards. So this doctor consulted his rabbi about his quandary. At first, the rabbi advised him to try different masks, but nothing worked. The doctor returned to his rabbi. He wanted to quit his position in the hospital.

The doctor was certain that his decision to give up his position was the appropriate response. He was surprised that the rabbi disagreed, rejected his proposal out of hand, and advised him to remove his beard. The rabbi explained what should have been obvious: Saving a life is at the very top of Jewish priorities, so the doctor was to remain in place, and do whatever necessary to continue his life-saving work.

At first, the rabbi’s advice didn’t sit well with the doctor. Wearing a beard is, externally, the mark of a Chasidic Jew. But, the rabbi pointed out, this wasn’t about the doctor. The beard, prayers with the minyan, and all the rituals of our daily routines, he reminded the doctor, are mitzvahs, G-d’s commands. And one of His greatest mitzvahs is the commandment to save life, and to prioritize that over and above most other mitzvahs.

Maybe there’s the rub in this crisis: a virus that has forced us out of our comfortable habits, reminding us that our religious routines are not, after all, about serving ourselves. Barred from so much of what has come to shape and define our Jewish lifestyle, we’ve been made to step back from the coziness we’ve cultivated with practices that we forget are not the highest priorities.

Perhaps the distance that the virus has placed between us and the Divine prescriptions that we have bent to our own will, will have the effect of turning each one of us into the baal-teshuvah, the returning Jew. When this is over, then, like the returning Jew, we will come back to every mitzvah with the awe of revelation—our response to the novel call of the ineffable G-d.

Addendum: When we realize that the Torah Hashem gave us is not about serving ourselves but rather about stepping OUT of ourselves, the Torah and Mitzvos are then able to help us break free of the bondage to the self. And there is no greater freedom than that.