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VOLUME 1, ISSUE 23

04/23/2020 12:17:48 PM

Apr23

Jordan Hiller

The New Normal

To pass the time over, er, Passover, I read three books. Well, one wasn't a book, but a machzor. The Koren Pesach Machzor to be exact, and I found myself alone in my backyard, tallis on, often reading through the essays and commentary when I was supposed to be davening. The second was The Sages Volume I by Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau. Reading the book made me feel very close to our shul, and, no, not because YINW is filled with a bunch of sages. But because every time I opened it I saw the donation sticker, likely made by David "Merlin" Staschover, and likely pasted in by Yitz "Magic" Horowitz. And it says that the book was donated by The Butler Family in memory of Philip Bach, A'H. It reminded me both of how close and caring our community is – and also that I had "borrowed" the book and neglected to return it in a timely fashion. 

(Eli Chaikin can attest that I had the intention of returning it earlier this week, but there were workers in the shul. What were they working on? I have no idea. But I assure you I will return The Sages Volume I and "borrow" The Sages Volume II as soon as possible.)

The third book I read we will get to in a bit.

What struck me while reading the first two books at the same time was not only how often they coincidentally overlapped in content, but also how Pesach is such a "New Normal" holiday.

We have been told ad nauseam that we must prepare for the "New Normal." That life won't be the same. That we shouldn't expect to go back to the way things were. And this makes sense. Nothing as cataclysmic an event as this Coronavirus could allow for a return to a world where it never happened. A seismic shift in our behavior and in society has to be expected. What will that entail? As if I know, but we will get to that issue when we talk about the aforementioned third book.

Meanwhile, what was it about those first two books that made Pesach such an ironic yom tov to be celebrating as our first in the post-virus era?

Unlike all other holidays which commemorate events in our past, Pesach really seems to want us to have been there. Besides stressing the "In every generation every one of us is obligated to regard ourselves as though we had gone through Mitzrayim" aspect, there is the intensive centrality of the Korban Pesach

Yes, we do a seder – which is a very cool and cherished innovation – combining traditions from two thousand-plus years of exile, but the seder is merely a replacement player. The seder is just the New Normal. Yes, we can still get rid of the chametz and tell the tale of The Exodus, but – reading the mishnayot in my Koren Machzor – it became evident that feasting as a family on that Korban Pesach was the main deal. Even the mitzvah of eating maror is only proscribed in conjunction with the meat. 

Sukkot we can still build. The arba minim we can wave. On Yom Kippur we can fast, on Rosh Hashanah we can blast the shofar, and on Shavuot we can…still eat cheesecake. 

But, on Pesach – one of the main mitzvot that we are supposed to participate in and otherwise anchor our experience– is temporarily gone. 

Reading how the sages of the Second Temple period had to create the New Normal after its destruction was an eerie reminder of how often throughout history the Jewish people needed to create new normals for themselves. 

The latter half of Volume I dealt entirely with the tension between those sages resisting the new normal and those who understood that the old ways were gone and that in order for the nation to survive, drastic changes would be needed – like the seder, like tefilah, like rabbinic ordinances. 

The audibles called by those sages worked out pretty well. So well in fact that what we all miss and long for and wish we could return to is not what was done during the Temple periods (or even what the Torah commands), but what the sages instituted to be the new post-Churban normal.

What they considered terrible and devastating concessions – changes that represented a horrifying reality and the desolation of proper Torah-observant Judaism – is what we are desperate to go back to.

I think The Rambam would have held like Governor Andrew Cuomo. They agree that we don't just rebuild, but we rebuild better and smarter. The Rambam said in his Guide for the Perplexed that tefilah is actually an improvement – an evolution if your will – over the barbaric nature of animal sacrifices. I think many of you would agree. Is the seder, with all its tradition, song, and symbolism, better than chowing down on some roast lamb? Maybe. Regardless, it’s such a beautiful mitzvah that we would have a very hard time going back to the barbeque. Perhaps they will be combined. The point being that sometimes, the new normal really is better. And, yes, sometimes it takes something cataclysmically awful to get there. 

What will be the new normal in our case? Like I said, what do I know? But there was that third book that I read over Pesach. One I had read before, but it was a good time to dust it off and crack it open anew. It was Albert Camus' The Plague. Based loosely on true events, it is about an outbreak of bubonic plague in the French Algerian city of Oran. So much about human nature and the progression of epidemics into very serious and grave problems remains the same. They did not have Zoom, yet the entirety of their experience – from denial to realization to acceptance to numbness – is recognizable in our own. Although we are all well aware of prior pandemics, it was comforting in a way to read about one that came and went – however long it took. That life always goes on. After all sorts of churbans. And there is always a new normal waiting for us on the other side. One that will be strange and distasteful to us, but a source of sweet, stable nostalgia for a generation to come. 

By: Jordan Hiller

Wed, May 25 2022 24 Iyyar 5782