Mrs. Rivkah Slonim, shlucha to Binghamton University, talks about how to make the most out of what we’ve got.
By Mrs. Rivkah Slonim for Anash.org
From a talk given at the Virtual Kinus
There is incessant chatter all around us about this being an unprecedent time – or a black swan event – which isn’t quite true. There have been world pandemics before. During the 20th century, it is estimated that smallpox was responsible for 300–500 million deaths. And that’s just one epidemic in that century.
And the possibility of this current virus was forecasted and forewarned about; it did not appear out of thin air.
There have also been similar economic upheavals brought on by change, the largest being the Internet, but things like the introduction of digital photography, the end of the Cold War, and even the rise of Starbucks, all caused tremendous losses for some and tremendous gains for others.
There have been wars, there has been famine, and scores of other iterations of hardships that people have endured while having to be stuck or hidden at home.
Specifically, we Yidden know that b’chol dor v’dor omdim olainu lechaloseinu. There have always been challenges.
And specifically, we chassidim know that to overcome those hurdles we have to go l’chatchila ariber.
We, the front-line troops in the Rebbe’s army, must employ an infinity mindset. Our minds must be completely focused and our will as strong as iron. Ain davar ho-omed befnai haratzon.
We are not just looking to endure, to tolerate this current situation, to shelter in place and wallow in holding pattern – and specifically, we have not gathered today to discuss survival mode. That is not for us.
We are here to discuss reinventive mode. Lubavitcher shluchim and shluchos are professionals at disruptive innovation. In this current matzav, the Aibershter is practically screaming at us to innovate and overturn all previous paradigms. If a college student can build a functioning ventilator, creating parts from stuff he had in his room and some more stuff he bought at Walmart, we got this.
There is no question that we are going to come out stronger. That we are going to touch more neshomos than ever. That we are going to bring our communities to be mekabel penai Moshiach tzidkeinu, bekorov momosh, momosh.
First and foremost, as those around us battle with confusion and uncertainty, we have a tafkid that defines our very existence. It’s true that the world is very different than it was even three months ago, and it may be irrevocably altered. But our shlichus has not changed. Our mission has not been interrupted. Our lives are not on pause.
This realization is in and of itself a stabilizing factor not only for ourselves, but for all of those around us. Everywhere, there are people who need an anchor: the senior citizens who are suffering fear and isolation, the parents who have neither school nor camp to take care of their children’s needs for the hours they usually work, the essential workers who have to put themselves out there every day because they have no choice, the privileged who can’t sleep for fear of their investments losing value, the recent college graduates who have no job prospects in sight. It’s everyone who is looking for guidance, for stability, for a vision, for a road map.
We have to provide that. We have to broadcast loudly and clearly the message of Torah and Chassidus. We are here – all of us – to build a dira lo yisborech, now, no less than at any other time. We need to model that truth in the way we live our lives with realism but optimism and great bitachon in the hashgacha elyona. No, this is not the apocalypse, it is merely an interesting twist and turn in the road towards Moshiach. Being a clear, steady voice in the cacophony of confusion is in and of itself is a tremendous shlichus.
We need to remind ourselves that we are bnei Yisroel, children of struggle. And Chassidus teaches us that with that name was revealed our essence, our ability to overcome all sorts of difficulties and challenges vatuchal and be able to not only to surmount them, but come out stronger, to come out a sar.
Now, the only remaining question is how: we need ideas and we need practical application.
Let me suggest, that as a tentative beginning we employ the following metaphor for reimagining our shlichus during this time, and perhaps even beyond the immediate crisis.
We can think of the Chabad House enterprise or paradigm as a sukkah. We are here to provide shelter to any Jew who seeks it. Our purpose is to be there, wherever there are Jews, as a safe, happy, welcoming oasis. And when people don’t come to our sukkah, no problem. (Remember, we are the people who invented sukkah-mobiles.)
What might they do in our sukkah? That really depends on them. Hit and run snacks, full meals, there is a smorgasbord of possibilities. But one thing we know: if they sit in our sukkah, or even stand in it for a few minutes, it will embrace them, completely.
Now, a sukkah by definition has to be a temporary structure. Our shlichus is to welcome people in and accept them b’asher hu sham, give them a wholesome, warm, engaging, relevant experience. But ultimately, no matter how fancy our sukkah, our shlichus is for them to realize that this whole enterprise is temporary. We are in golus, and we are all meant to work together towards bringing about a completely different existence: a world perfected, healed, and saturated with G-d consciousness. Letaken olam b’malchus Shin Daled Yud.
Because the sukkah has to be temporary, the walls cannot be too high. Beyond a certain height, walls would necessitate a more permanent type of construction model to remain safely in place. The Mishna therefore tells us that a sukkah that is higher than 20 amah (approximately 40 feet) is pesula.
But, the Gemara teaches that if you build a platform in the sukkah, thus in effect elevating the floor, then it can be kosher if from the platform to the top of the sukkah is 20 amah or less. It seems to me, that we have done a great job of creating platforms to make all kinds of “sukkahs” kosher. We have cutting edge programming, really creative portals of entry, beautiful facilities, an amazing presence on the web, a ubiquitous presence on the streets of major cities, in hospitals, in prisons, in old age homes, in public schools, office buildings, on campuses.
Give us a demographic and we have built a platform to cater to their needs. Give us a season, a yom tov, a niche market, and we have reappropriated it for kedusha purposes. And we have built these creative, multi-dimensional, eclectic platforms to create kosher sukkahs with a decent amount of elegance and pizazz.
But now, I think we have to look at a different halacha. As much as a sukkah has to be transient it also has to be place in which you can dwell comfortably. Which is why, minimally, the walls of the sukkah have to be ten tefachim high, approximately 30 inches to 3 feet. Even that is a very cramped space for an average human being to dwell in. Less than that is impossible. Posul.
I want to suggest that the Covid virus that has forced us to shelter in place, to close our shuls, schools and every conventional type of programming, has threatened the kashrus of the sukkah – it’s too confining. But we can’t panic.
It must mean that we have to employ the strategy the Gemara suggest for turning a sukkah with walls less than ten tefachim high into a kosher sukkah, and that is to dig a trench to excavate below the ground level.
My dear sisters, this is our time to dig deep beneath what would conventionally be the floor we stand on. I know, it feels like the rug has been pulled out from beneath us, but that’s just a hint to go beneath that floorboard. And here is the beauty in doing so: we can be madly successful with very simple actions. Digging deep means that we are not calling to invite someone to an event because we want to have a decent crowd and feel like our money has been well spent. No, these days we are calling to find out how they are, just because we care about them. Just like that.
Now isn’t that the point of all of our programming? To forge meaningful relationships? To go deeper?
To create bonds between ourselves and other Yidden, to facilitate their bond with the Torah, to show them that they have a direct, inviolable bond with the Aibershter? This is a golden opportunity to have the beyond the surface conversations that are often impossible in the normal hustle and bustle of platform building and all the meals and parties we hold on those platforms.
Yes, this is also a time for creativity and ingenuity, in terms of reaching out to larger groups of people at one time. We have to reimagine our programming, camps, campuses, schools, shuls, all on the “Zoom gali gali gali” track that is our new broken record.
And if and when Zoom has an issue, it’s really hard. This has taken a lot of quick thinking and fancy footwork, and there is still a lot of work to be done on that front.
But more than anything else, this current matzav is crying out for us to poshut switch gears into a much more penimiusdike mode – meet people where they are with a call, with bringing over some soup, with a one-on-one connection. One shliach had an idea that now is a perfect time to contact people to see if they want their mezuzahs checked.
Everyone can do this in some way, and here’s the beauty in this new dig trenches system: any small thing registers huge because to that one person you have really, really made a difference. Mothers with lots of young children in the house can have their kids make cards and mail them or deliver them as a pick me up to some people who might be extra isolated. Or send cute voicemails, or act out a skit.
Make some extra challahs or cookies or kugels and bring them over to someone or -ones before Shabbos, or just on a Wednesday. Offer to pick up groceries or pharmaceuticals when going out anyway, lend a listening ear.
There is no way any of these peulos can be a flop, or be anything less than an amazing success. Because devraim hayotzim min halev nichnasim el halev. We are all operating on deep to deep connections now. Not fancy, not involved. Just sincere and heartfelt.
There are a lot of people who have more time to learn now – not everyone, but enough. People are looking to connect, and they are hungry for healthier content than Netflix.
And even for those who don’t want to learn: Everyone can use a dose of pure ahavas Yisroel.
Here is another plus: the craziness of the current situation lends itself to matter over form. You don’t have to stress the menu and the centerpieces today. Just the tochen of what you want to convey. You don’t even have to stress the fact that some of your kids might interrupt your shiur or cooking for yom tov demo. There is a new sense of etiquette or lack thereof, more tolerance, and more understanding.
No matter what you feel you can do, it will be appreciated deeply, even in its imperfection.
And If you don’t fit into your clothing, this is a great time. Adjust the camera so it shows only what you want it to show, and voilà.
But my friends, my dear sisters, all kidding aside, the one thing we can’t do now is feel stuck or irrelevant or confused.
Tzadik yesod olam, we are the yada arichta of that tzadik. The world has never needed us more than now.
Start a short list of people you want to reach out to. Start with one person a day.
Or perhaps you want to do one thing before Shavuos on Zoom or Facebook Live. Even if you never did anything like this before, I promise you, you can do this – seven year olds are pontificating on social media all day, every day.
There is no question that each one of our sukkahs will bring about, finally, our heartfelt tefillah that Hashem restore the sukkas Dovid hanofeles with the hisgalus of the Rebbe, do lemata v’hu yigoleinu.
And just in case you are worried that I have completely lost my sanity and I think we are up to Shemini Atzeres, let me assure you that I know we are coming to the other Atzeres, and like all of you, my tefillah is that we be makabel the Torah with ultimate simcha u’bepnimius because we will be with Malkeinu b’rosheinu, omein ken yehi ratzon.