Coronavirus and Maintaining Belief in Challenging Times

Many in my large Jewish community have lamented the closure of our Shuls and schools in the face of the devastating Coronavirus cutting a deadly path across our nation. I am among them. Yet I tend to react to difficult situations with what I am sometimes told is ill-advised humor. I first said, in jest, that COVID-19 was a hint that we as a people are showing a lack of respect – “covid” in a certain imprecise Hebrew dialect – for Yom Tov, holidays, as hinted at in the number 19 (יט = יום טוב). A colleague of mine suggested in response that 19 is a hint to the Shemoneh Esrei prayer, and that we are showing a lack of respect in our prayers. (I think she was kidding. I hope so anyway.)

In any event, as I have written here before, I am a habitual Shul-goer, and I try to go every day of the week, twice or three times a day as needed. So the news that I would be Davening from home for a while hit me hard, as it did so many others. The first morning alone in my living room, thinking of all of the Tefillot that we cannot say at home, I said to myself, “Well, at least we can say Keil Melech Ne’eman before Shema.” It started as another of those misplaced jokes – how could a single three-word phrase stand in for Kaddish, Kedusha, and Borchu? Until I realized, the more I thought about it, that it wasn’t a joke at all, and that perhaps it can.

The interpolation of the phrase Keil Melech Ne’eman before Shema when praying without a Minyan is not one to sneeze at, and it may be more critical an addition at this time than any of the Tefillot that we are omitting by Davening at home. Consider the stark language of the Anaf Yosef, a commentary on the Siddur, explaining this phrase in this context before Shema:

אל מלך נאמן – אל – פירוש, תקיף, בעל היכולת והחסדים. מלך – פירוש, משגיח בעמו כמלך בצבאיו. נאמן – פירוש, ליפרע, ונאמן לשלם שכר טוב למתהלכים לפניו. אם כן, נכללו כאן ג’ עיקרים: מציאות השם ויכלתו – אל. והשגחה – מלך. ושכר ועונש – נאמן.

G-d, trustworthy King – Keil (G-d) – Meaning [that He is the] Ruler, the One who has the most ability and the most kindness. Melech (King) – Meaning [that] he watches over His nation like a king watches over his soldiers. Ne’eman (Trustworthy) – Meaning [that He can be trusted] to pay back, and that He can be trusted to pay good reward for those who follow in His ways. If so, this phrase includes three major principles: The existence of G-d and His abilities – Keil (G-d). And that He watches over us – Melech (King). And reward and punishment – Ne’eman (Trustworthy).

Taken this way, it is hard to think of a more evocative three-word phrase, or one more apt for us to say and internalize at this critical juncture. Perhaps at this time, Hashem didn’t view it as a challenge that we say Kedusha, Kaddish, or Borchu with a Minyan. Those are relatively easy. But what a challenge it is for any person of faith to look at the situation unfolding around him and to be able to say these words properly. Can such a person truly say that Hashem is the most kind, when so many families will be without their loved ones as a result of this virus? Can we look around as an invisible enemy perpetrated by Hashem Himself haunts millions and say that He is truly watching over us as a king protects his legions of soldiers? Can we still believe that Hashem pays back those who love Him at the very moment that He has seemingly cut off Tefillah B’tzibbur, public prayer, the most trusted avenue for our communication with Him? What message are we to glean from all of this, if not that He is unkind, uninterested, and unaffectionate? And yet we are presented at this very moment with this unique challenge: set aside your Kedusha, your Kaddish and your Borchu to sit in your home and say – and believe, if you can – that Hashem is kind, interested, and affectionate. That is the challenge of our time.

The origin of adding Keil Melech Ne’eman before the Shema without a minyan is unclear; the Bach in his commentary on the Tur cites the Rokeach and implies that it is an ancient custom equating to an “Amen” response (אל מלך נקמן) to the Beracha before it, thus only necessary when one is without a Chazzan to whom one can answer Amen properly. The Beit Yosef opines that the phrase was originally added universally (with or without a minyan) to bump up the number of words in Shema from 245 to the magical 248, the number of positive Mitzvot and limbs in the body, but was eventually replaced by the Chazzan (except when there isn’t one) repeating “Hashem Elokeichem Emet” at the end of Shema. Rav Soloveitchik is reported to have been opposed to the addition of this phrase (see the Rosh Hashana Machzor with Rav Soloveitchik’s commentary, Hanhagos HaRav, #24, p. xlix). This was surely the result of a Halachic mind concerned with avoiding a hefsek, interruption, between the Beracha before Shema and Shema itself. It is also, perhaps, the product of a 20th-century American mindset in which one would almost never legitimately be cut off from public prayer anyway, besides the occasional plane trip on Lufthansa. Yet what likely made the Anaf Yosef so forceful and evocative in his stirring comment on this phrase is that, as he knew all too well living in 19th-century Poland, the majority of situations in which the faithful Jew would be called upon to pray alone would be ones which would call upon him to dig deep into the reservoir of his faith and challenge him to set aside nagging doubts, instead calling out from his hideaway, attic, or bunker that Hashem is kind, involved, and loving despite all available evidence to the contrary. If there are no avowed atheists in foxholes, there are many silent ones in hidden annexes, as the history of Russian Jewry can well attest.

In our blessed lives, we are rarely called upon to find this same measure of faith within us. We are taught not to judge Holocaust survivors who lost their faith, with the implication being that any one of us may have emerged from that hell the same as they. We pray comfortably in our safe Shuls, rarely needing to truly take the temperature of our faith as so many before us needed to gauge theirs. This moment is an opportunity to do just that. Let us say this phrase with particular concentration – not in spite of its philosophical difficulty, but because of it. And as the world struggles to overcome a bacterial virus, let us struggle to overcome our own spiritual adversaries from the confines of our home, from where we will soon emerge en masse and return to our Shuls, stronger than ever.

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