The Virus of Playing God
Last Shabbos, at the early Mincha at BRS, the Torah rolled off the bimah and onto the floor. Like many shuls that have adjusted during the pandemic, we currently don’t position Gabbaim on either side of the bimah, so the ba’al koreh is up there alone, with only those who receive aliyos standing on the other side of a plastic divider. The Torah normally remains still but for some reason, in this case, one of the sides began to roll and it wasn’t detected in time. Though I wasn’t there when it happened, if anyone is at fault it is me for not arranging to modify the bimah with a bracket on either end to prevent this from happening.
Those present were understandably shaken. Indeed, as soon as Mincha ended there were knocks at both my back and front doors from people who were there and desperate to know what it means and what they need to do. In this particular circumstance, Rav Shlomo Zalman (Halichos Shlomo 1:12:39) and others write that a public fast is not necessary since the Torah was not dropped by any individual, nor was there any action or event that seemed to precipitate its fall. (You can read more about the laws of when a Torah falls here.)
Feeling traumatized by witnessing a Torah fall is appropriate. As believing Jews, we know that everything that happens comes from Hashem and that He is communicating with us through events that we participate in, witness, or are otherwise part of. Asking oneself why I was meant to observe this, what can I learn from it, and how can the experience inspire me to grow as a result, is fitting and commendable.
One rabbi from outside of Florida decided that he knows why this happened. Referring to BRS and its rabbis, he wrote on Facebook:
Of course, the traumatized congregants were all wearing masks, so no one could see their pained expressions when the Torah fell to the floor. Not a single unmasked face has been seen at that synagogue for many months. And everyone stood far apart from one another in fastidious observance of social distancing. Consequently, no one was standing close enough to catch the falling Torah.
In fact, this congregation is rather extreme in its enforcement of "public health policy." Even before covid, the rabbis at this shul were most fanatic in enforcing total compliance to mandatory vaccine schedule. Children who hadn't been vaccinated… were banned from attending local Jewish schools under the guidance of these rabbis, and families who hadn't complied with vaccine requirements were banned from synagogue…
Once covid started, this synagogue went to extremes to comply with every single dictate and recommendation of the CDC. Congregants who weren't in total compliance were banned from shul and in some cases, banned from ever joining the shul again!...
Is it a coincidence that the Torah fell off the bima in THIS shul?
Is the holy Torah trying to tell them something?
Is the Torah's sudden fall an act of Heavenly protest?
By ousting children from Talmud Torah and banning Jews from shul or even from congregating in their own homes, have they effectively defiled, betrayed, and neglected the holy Torah... to such a degree that the Torah no longer feels comfortable on their bima?
How can we help this deeply-misguided congregation repent from their wicked ways? How can we impress upon this errant community to demand competent Torah leadership from their rabbis? Who can explain to them that their "covid policies" are an egregious violation of Judaic law, and that every Jewish man, woman, and child, must be welcome in every shul, with or without a mask... and if not, then the Torah doesn't feel welcome there either? When will they wake up to the reality that covid policy is a modern-day idolatry, an unprecedented assault on G-d and His Torah?
Let's pray that the Torah's shocking fall will rouse them from their reverie of indifference and indoctrination.
I don’t know what is more disturbing, that someone would think this and write it, or how many people agreed with it, liked it, and shared it. I wonder if he also tells the family of each person who died of coronavirus why their loved one was taken from this world or if he can explain the Holocaust to our survivors.
To be honest, when I read it, I was somewhat relieved. A friend had told me that a rabbi had written about why the Torah fell at our Shul. To state the obvious, I am imperfect and so is BRS so I feared highlighting one of my or our faults would be profoundly embarrassing and humiliating. When I read it, rather than feel shame, I felt proud of our community’s efforts to be compliant, to be safe, and to protect the health and wellbeing of our members in a manner consistent with accepted science and medical guidance.
So what does the falling of the Torah mean for our community and for those who were present?
The Mishna in Pirkei Avos teaches: “Histakeil b’shelosha devarim v’ein atah bah liydei aveira: dah mah l’maaleh mimecha, ayin ro’eh, v’ozen shoma’as, v’chol ma’asecha b’sefer nichtavin - Look at three things and you will avoid misbehaviors – know Who is above you: an eye is watching, an ear is listening and all of your actions are being recorded.”
The Baal Shem Tov interpreted this teaching differently. He said, know what is above you – there is a God, an omnipotent, infinite Being controlling the universe. Therefore, ayin ro’eh – what you see, you were meant to see. V’ozen shoma’as – and what you hear, you were meant to hear. V’chol ma’asecha b’sefer nichtavin –how you react and how you respond to what you see and what you hear will be recorded and reflect who you are.
We certainly have a tradition of learning from all that we experience and encounter, particularly the most unusual experiences and interactions. However, the onus and responsibility are on us to introspect, reflect and determine what we want to change or improve as a result of what we have seen or experienced. Even among those who consult rabbis and rebbes about what particular events mean, the response is to consider taking on something new or to improve a personal practice, not to correlate the two in the form of blame. (For example, if someone receives bad news, the appropriate response is not, “This happened because I didn’t daven with enough consistency or focus,” but an appropriate response would be, “Now that I have received this news, I should respond by working on davening with more consistency or focus.”)
Whether reacting to a fallen sefer Torah in a community or someone’s personal illness, we are never in a position to tell people why things are happening to them. To do so, particularly with confidence and surety, is not only arrogant, it is to play God and compete with the Divine. It borders on heresy, even if you have “rabbi” before your name.
At the same time, to casually dismiss or ignore Hashem’s messages to us is to mute the Divine, to ignore the One Who is speaking to us, which is cruel both to Him and to ourselves.
Perhaps the message of a Torah falling in BRS is to be stricter with coronavirus guidelines, not less. Maybe it is a message about paying closer attention to Torah reading, showing great honor to Torah, being more punctual to davening, or treating others with more sensitivity, respect and love. It is up to us to take time to reflect.
Let’s use the Torah’s fall to inspire all of us to rise.
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