Social distance provides many valuable lessons

“If I had the power I would provisionally close all synagogues for a hundred years. Do not tremble at the thought of it, Jewish heart. What would happen? Jews and Jewesses without synagogues, desiring to remain such, would be forced to concentrate on a Jewish life and a Jewish Home. The Jewish officials connected with the synagogue would have to look to the only opportunity now open to them — to teach young and old how to live a Jewish life and how to build a Jewish home. All synagogues closed by Jewish hands would constitute the strongest protest against the abandonment of the Torah in home and life. [emphasis added]” — Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (as quoted in the “Introduction by Translator” to Horeb, “The Classification of the Mitzvoth,” p.1xix)
With a Hirschian hundred-year hiatus from synagogue life unlikely to ever manifest itself in real life, it seems that our current Coronavirus inspired quarantined existence is the closest we will hopefully ever get to witnessing such an alien reality. That being said, Rav Hirsch zt’’l (1808-1888) was on to something that was and is in dire need of rectification. Could this be the time we actually do something about it?
For far too long the synagogue has replaced the home in its centrality to Jewish life. Sure, synagogues are ideal places for Jewish gatherings, communal prayer and life-cycle celebrations, but life plays itself out primarily in the home, surrounded by the most profound influences any of us will ever know — our parents! Rav Hirsch’s point — Judaism and Torah need to be domesticated specifically in our homes if we want them to shape the next generation of observant Jews. To put it simply, we need to get the Torah out of the ark and into our living rooms!
Without a synagogue to go to, many of us are doing just that. Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat is being live-streamed onto our big screens, and families are praying together on their couches. Many organizations, including my own, are increasing their online presence and the plethora of learning opportunities available for download or live-zooming on our digital devices allows for a steady stream of inspiring and spiritual thoughts to fill our abodes. It is assuredly within our powers to turn this period of grand global uncertainty into a precious opportunity for familial value-sharing and growth.
This prospect, though, extends well beyond the aforementioned available encounters with Judaism in the home. Without offices to go to, many of us are spending a lot more time at home than usual. This means that our children are fully privy to the way we spend our time, both our working and resting hours. And while it’s easy to cajole our children to use their now extended home time wisely, instead of endlessly numbing their minds in front of their computers and video game consoles, we can appreciate why our words might fall on deaf ears when we spend all our free time in a similar fashion.
Imagine, on the contrary, what a powerful pedagogical impression we can send by utilizing our nights to study Torah at the dining room table or by finding ways to use our free time to express our values. We are staying home anyway, why not consider lighting the Shabbat candles and turning off all electronic devices to bask in the Shabbat spirit together as a family Friday night? As we all intuitively know, it is what our children actually see us do that makes all the difference in the transmission of family values.
And finally, let’s be incredibly careful during this trying time to live up to our higher selves. After only one week cooped up at home we all feel a little stir-crazy and on edge, and it becomes that much easier to lash out at our children and spouse in anger and frustration when things aren’t going the way we want. That being said, our interpersonal Jewish values of patience, compassion, and love are on show and at stake now more than ever before!
These are unusual times to say the least. These are also unusually opportunistic times for imparting our Jewish values to our land-locked (or “home-locked?”) children. We are unlikely to get this opportunity again in our parenting lifetimes — shall we be the better for it?
You know what Rav Hirsch would say.

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