The Mashgiach on Solitude

by Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky

We are experiencing an unprecedented disruption of the normal functioning of the entire world. Many people have tried to explain the message Hashem is sending us, encouraging us to be more meticulous in various aspects of our Judaism. The demands range from something compelling, like working on our lashon harah, as we are suffering the isolation mandated for the metzorah, who is punished for lashon harah; but the explanations extend to standard explanations that are always used in response to tragedy (whether it be long sheitels, serving in the Israeli army, internet, tzinus, Kiddush clubs, et al).

As this situation, this tragedy, is much bigger than anything the world has experienced, it may be valuable to think in some additional directions.

The situation we are witnessing is what chazal define as “mageyfah”, loosely translated as a plague or epidemic. We are taught two unique things about a mageyfa, making its effects different than all other tragedies. The Gemara[1] teaches that in a mageyfah, the malach hamaves, the angel of death, is given power in a less restrictive way than it normally has. The consequences of this power led to the unique restriction against leaving one’s house, quarantine, on the night of the last plague in Egypt. The Gemara[2] explains that at times like that, the angel of death does not distinguish between the tzadikim, the righteous, and the resha’aim, the sinners. All are vulnerable, without distinction of their individual levels of piety. And in fact the angel of death begins his rounds with the tzadikim.

This is a radical deviation from the normal way Hashem runs the world. But we are seeing this in front of our eyes in a most painful way. If true, simply looking for additional upgrades in our mitzvah observance may not be enough.

So how do we confront a mageyfah?

The paradigm of a mageyfah being visited upon the Jewish people took place after the Korach rebellion[3]. The remedy was for Aharon HaKohen to take ketores. And through it, the mageyfah was stopped, והמגפה נעצרה. Apparently, a mageyfah must be stopped – ceasing to spread – rather than being healed.

Ketores, the vehicle to stop a mageyfah, is an avodah, a service, has two unique characteristics. First, it is the only sacrifice which completely rises to Hashem, 100% consumed, leaving no residue. And its power lies in representing unity. In a sacrifice whose purpose is to provide a beautiful smell, chelbenah, a spice which is foul smelling, is included. It represents the less desirable elements of the Jewish people, but to accomplish what ketores is meant to accomplish, the spice must be included.[4]

What we are witnessing in the Corona mageyfah is a death toll that is not sparing even the most righteous among us. And the real medical challenge of this virus is to stop its spread. So our focus should be on how to access the power of ketores, when we lack the original.

Dovid Hamelech provided us with an anwer. תכון תפילתי קטורת לפניך. My prayer should be as ketores before you[5]. We have power through our tefilla to access, on some level, the power of ketores. But we may need to adjust the focus of our tefilla in these times of mageyfah. With the closing of shuls, and now even outside minyanim, we are being deprived of the communal power of tefilla. We are now davening as individuals, so there must be potential in this new reality to give our tefilla the power of ketores, necessary to eventually stop the mageyfah. Normally our tefilla is focused on performing a mitzvah, and asking for our personal needs. In the present chaotic state of the world, we don’t have systems that would allow us, even on a physical level, to attain most of those personal needs. Rather, our tefilla must focus on something much bigger than our own world. Our tefilla needs to connect us to reality that is beyond the normal functioning of the world, just as ketores is a service that is fully directed to an upper world, completely transcending the daily world in which normal sacrifices operate.

And we want to find a way, through our tefilla, to connect us to unity of Klal Yisrael, breaking down so many of the barriers that we have erected in “normal times,” even as we are forced to daven very much as individuals.[6] It is a great challenge, but also a great opportunity. By focusing our tefilla on forging a connection to a higher level reality and connection with the Almighty than we do in normal times, we have the capacity to enable our tefilla to parallel the service of ketores.[7]


There is one additional insight on the spiritual potential that lies hidden in the isolation being imposed upon us. It comes from Rav Shlomo Volbe, one of the giants of mussar of the previous century.

In Alei Shur[8] Rav Volbe speaks about the importance of recognizing one’s uniqueness and individuality. He terms one who lacks an appreciation of their uniqueness as a “stam adam”, someone “just like everyone else.” If a person allows his personality and behaviors to be fashioned by his environment and social conditioning, never thinking carefully about what he is doing and why, he quickly becomes “just like everyone else.” He lacks any sense of his unique purpose. The result is the need to always be around people, since it is very boring to spend time with someone who has nothing special or interesting about him – which is how he views himself! To counter this phenomenon, which Rav Volbe identified decades ago, he suggests (and he instituted the practice as a Yeshiva mashgiach) that one set time every week to be alone , simply be with himself. Get to know your SELF. He used to tell us how many of his students found this a very scary experience. They didn’t like the person they were meeting, getting to know, and having to spend time alone “with that person.”

If the fear of being alone, the need to always be around people, was a problem decades ago, today it has been significantly amplified. Surrounded by internet (high speed, of course), smart phones, facebook, twitter, instagram and other means of connection that, given my age bracket, I probably don’t even know about – we are always “connected”. We are never alone. Certainly these tools have become valuable vehicles to ensure that we can access Torah as well as necessary information and communication in our daily lives. But the downside has been the inability to ever be alone.  We simply lack the opportunity to spend time with ourselves. We lose a sense of our individuality, our uniqueness, our special place in Hashem’s world, our sense that there is a reality so much greater than we perceive by living a life of routine, being always acted upon by forces outside of ourselves.

The isolation being imposed on us due to the Corona virus presents an opportunity to spend time with our selves, getting to know ourselves better. And of course this should extend to our spouses and children, with whom our harried lives don’t always allow us to spend sufficient time.

The speed in which the world has been upended is breathtaking. And the unpredictable nature of this world-wide phenomenon shows the limits of man’s control over Hashem’s world. What is under our control is the personal spiritual growth we can take for the situation. Enabling our tefilla to give us insights in to higher reality than we imagine. Getting to know our real selves, rather than one that is imposed upon us by an “always on” society. As we pray for the welfare of all people and a speedy end to the spreading virus, let us utilize the great opportunities before us.

Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky is Rosh Yeshiva of Yesvhiva Darche Noam/Shapell’s, and co-founder and Dean of the Shapell’s/ Darche Noam institutions.

  1. Berachos 4b

  2. Bava Kama 60a

  3. See Bamidbar 17:9-15

  4. See Gemara Krisus 6b and Yalkut Shimoni Shemos 30:398

  5. Tehillim 142:2

  6. Beyond our tefilla, another way klal yisrael is finding ways to connect while being in isolation is through the many things people doing for each other. We are witnessing true heros, whether it be health care workers devoting themselves selflessly to patients; to musicians performing to a world wide audience on an ongoing basis; to groups and individuals working to ensure the personal welfare of isolated individuals

  7. Rav Reuven Leuchter wrote a small work called “Tefilla: Creating a Dialoge With Hashem” that is a valuable resources in rising to this challenge

  8. V. II, pgs 413-415

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16 Responses

  1. Moshe613 says:

    serving in the Israeli army— you mean risking our lives for you? have you shame

    • D. K. says:

      I think there is misunderstanding of those who are against serving in the Israeli Army which demands a certain sensitivity to understand. While the Israeli Army, founded to protect the citizens of the State of Israel, was definitely a positive innovation, the way it was managed was not equally encouraging. The Israeli Army was and is used as a melting pot to make all it’s soldiers to conform to certain ideas and ideals, many of them being far from the Torah’s outlook on life. This in turn made religious Jews, both Chareidi and Zionist, develop a suspicious and even negative attitude towards the army. Time after time, the Israeli government proved that it did not have the best interests of G-d and Torah in mind when setting army policy such as the drafting of girls and its antipathy towards Halacha. Even when the Chareidi world agreed to a seperate groups, the Army constantly broke their promises, leaving to an even larger distrust for the army.
      So, while those that do join the army and protect Klal Yisroel do deserve much Hakaras HaTov, this does not mean that for most Chareidi boys the army is a place for them to hang out.

      • Steven Brizel says:

        IMO, this is the wrong time and place to rehash this issue. OTOH, a communal and individual Chesbon HaNefesh would require all of us to wonder whether fighting today’s war with the hashkafic tools of yesterday, no matter how valid then, is helpful. It behooves us as individuals and as communities regardless of our hashkafic differences to remember and underscore that the Maginot Line did not prevent the Blitzkrieg,

    • Shaya Karlinsky says:

      You really did not understand that line – or you are out of touch with goes on in certain fringes of the charedi world in Israel. There are those in the charedi world who are of the opinion that no charedi should serve in the Israeli army, and charedim who enlist are blackballed. And are viewed as the root of our problems, just as there are those who claim that long sheitels are the cause of tragedy, etc.

      • dr. bill says:

        The Torah permits marriage to a yifat tohar, ostensibly the army of old also presented challenges to one’s halakhic lifestyle. Our approach is to deal with the necessary challenges, not avoid them. Israel needs an army; even when there is no enemy attacking, we see the need clearly in times like this.

        We are commanded to live in the real world, not avoid it. This is a fundamental machloket whose history is not obvious. I suggest that isolation was often the result of persecution and ghettoization that was then viewed more positively. When Jews lived in relative equanimity with the surrounding world, our greatest philosophic works from Saadyah to Rambam to Menachem HaMeiri to Crescas to the Maharal to the Rav ztl were written. The Torah and our Mesorah are our strength. It may be in the short term that isolation has better results, but ve’hai ba’hem in its broadest terms is what we are commanded. Ger ve’toshav ani eeymahem.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    See for some useful tips.

    R’ Ozer Bergman’s longer look, his book on the topic, is a very thorough and well-written treatment .

    His talk on improved davening:

  3. D. K. says:

    Thank you Rabbi Karlinsky for the wonderful article. It’s so true what you right that we are always caught up in everything in everyone else’s world except our own. I hope that we will be Zocheh to take out the right messages from Corona and connect to our inner selves!

  4. MK says:

    Anyone exposed to the school of Slobodka, which produced most of the Gedolim that graced America, knows that not being an “individual” was a cardinal offense!
    Rav Hutner would often say, “A Yeshiva is not supposed to be a salami factory!”

  5. Raymond says:

    I am not sure that I understand this article. For one thing, is the bottom line of the first part of what he said here, is that we need to daven harder than ever before for G-d to stop this plague of the Chinese virus? I guess i was waiting for some kind of Kabbalistic secret to be revealed for exactly how to do this. And suddenly I am feeling so religious, as I admit it is frightening that the situation has become that we cannot even daven in a minyan anymore, frightening because davening in a minyan gives davening its power. So G-d is depriving us of this power, but then how are we supposed to adequately plead with G-d to stop this plague? Why is G-d making it so much more difficult to do this noble thing that we are all too willing to do? Is this His way of making sure that this plague does not stop any time soon, and if so, why? What am I missing here?

    And the other part of this I wish to comment on, is the notion of individuality. This is a comment more than a question, or maybe it is both, but I wonder what role dreams pla in all this, especially when we remember and find meaning in them. When we are awake, all kinds of outside forces easily grab our attention, pulling us away from who we are, just as the article expresses so well. But when we dream, we are at the mercy of nobody but ourselves, our unconscious, and perhaps remembering our dreams and reflecting on their possible meaning, can help bring out who we really are at our individual core. I will not get into the specifics here, but just last night I had a dream that, so to speak, absolutely blew me away, as it gave me an understanding of myself that explained my overall thinking and behavior of my entire adult life. Sorry again for the cliche, but it really was mind-blowing both in its realization as well as in its implications.

    • Bob Miller says:

      Do we really expect clarity about what’s going on? We each have a piece of the puzzle about the situation and a piece of the puzzle about what to do personally because of it or despite it. Each member of K’lal Yisrael pitches in, to create a noble overall effort.

    • Shaya Karlinsky says:

      The only answer I have for the first part of your comments (the only one which asked a question) is that we need to daven differently, not harder. It is certainly harder to daven differently than we are used to – but that seems to be the need of the hour, if the comparison with ketores is correct. I don’t have the magic pill or silver bullet for that – but the changing envorinment, forcing our of our relgiious habits and comfort zones seems to be the only clear message available at this point.

  6. Michael Markson says:

    Thank you for this wonderful article with many great insights. I’m particularly interested in the section on trying to understand the process of prayer better. Unfortunately it seems that Reuven Leuchter’s small work called “Tefilla: Creating a Dialoge With Hashem” is out-of-print. Any idea where to get it & do have have any other recommendations ?

  7. StevevBrizel says:

    We are now seeing the opposite of Cheshbon HaNefesh as the magefah is beginning to peak and decrease with some rabbanim allowing “porch minyanim “ and the number of private minyanim increasing in various communities with some claiming that Poskim have a right to allow such halachically problematic procedures without consulting doctors or without proof that we are no longer in s safek sakanah I don’t like standing on line to buy rationed amounts of food at my local Trader Joe which must be a Sanders DIBlasio dream come trueand I miss davening with a minyan and acting as part of a Tzibur (and the Home Alone Pesach and Seder was done albeit without the inter generational element of children and grandchildren and working from home has lost its novelty ) as much as anyone but who are we to risk an upward spike in the magefah which knows no hashkafic and age boundaries and which already has lead to the worst elements of the internet spreading vicious anti Semitism Chachamim Hilary bdivreichem

  8. Steven Brizel says:

    For those interested as to claiming that “Daas Torah” can be issued without consulting experts such as physicians see some of the annexed comments.

  9. Steven Brizel says:

    I invite those interested to look at the annexed comments which should make anyone who takes the reasons for observance of at least a reduced form of Aveilus in Sefirah realize that the need for Cheshbon HaNefesh is loud and clear. ttps://
    When Daas Torah is posited as being pronounced without the need to consult with experts in any field, or even recognized expertise in such a field, one can argue that the same is the direct opposite of a Psak being rendered Bein LKula or LChumra after a Posek consults with specialist when such consultation is necessary, especially on a medical issue. Like it or not, no less than RAE closed down Tefilah BTzibur and urged the enforcement of such a Psak by involvement of the local police who were probably less favorably inclined to the needs of Klal Yisrael than the NYPD. A Psak rendered that either is not in consonance with, appreciation of or awareness of scientific knowledge will result in a Chillul HaShem and a complete lack of respect for Emunas Chachamim, Psak, Halacha and Torah .

  10. Steven Brizel says:

    Cheshbon HaNefesh is not easy, but IMO, the following could be a jumping off point.

    Ramban at the beginning of Parshas Lech Lecha tells us based on the Medrash Tanchuma that Maaseh Avos Siman LBanim is a key to understanding the lives and experiences of the Avos. Hundreds of years later, Santayana wrote that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Rambam in the Hakdama to Shemoneh Perakim , writes that one cures all disease, both bodily and mental, by isolating the cause of the disease, as opposed to prescribing medications and relief of a strictly palliative nature.

    The US , thanks to questionable export policies helped two Asian countries, whose responses were the opposite of gratitude, but rather a surprise military attack, and the exportation of a deadly virus. Part of our communal and individual Chesbon HaNefesh should be the recognition that the current Communist model of welcoming Western exports and imports and suppression of all human rights ( including the right to have more than one child per family) and scientific evidence is wrong and requires a reset.

    A further introduction by the way of a review of Sino-American history is required. In the 1920s and 1930s after the fall of the last monarchy to rule China, the Nationalists led by Chiang Kai Shek and the Communists led by Mao Tse Tung and Chou En Lai fought a brutal civil way that was only suspended by the more brutal invasion of China by Japan and WW2. Many Western liberals, media and intellectuals backed Mao as they backed Stalin and would also support Castro and other Communists. Chiang as a member of the Allied coalition emerged as one of the victors of WW2, but a corrupt victor who General Stilwell, the American commander in China during WW2, viewed as unwilling to fight Japan or work together with the forces led by Mao against the Chines. The civil war resumed in 1945 or 1946 . Chiang Kai Shek, who was an anti Communist but viewed as hopelessly corrupt, lost, and fled to Taipan in 1949, which has survived thanks to the development of American protection and the development of democractic institutions after being ruled by martial law. There are even political parties on Taiwan that advocate unification with the mainland, which should not surprise Americans who know that Lincoln’s policies during the Civil War were vociferously opposed by the media, the Democrats and the Radical Republicans, and adding more proof to Churchill’s comment about democracy and all other forms of government.

    The question of “Who Lost China” was a major Republican campaign weapon from 1949 until the late 1960s against liberal Democrats i who yearned to recognize Mao’s regime. The question of “Who Lost China” seemingly became academic when Nixon and Kissinger recognized China around 1971-72 and Democrats ( and some Republicans as well) assured us that China would become more Democratic as China opened its markets to Western trade.

    We now know that China did not become more democratic but rather far more ruthless in suppressing domestic dissent , scientific research, civil liberties which we take for granted and especially Internet access . China has also been conducting various forms of espionage in the US on college campuses , spinning its message thru state controlled media and and illegal poaching of American intellectual property while blocking imports of American manufactured goods and farm products for decades. In return, as the US gave in to the demands of radical environmentalists and excessive regulation, the US manufacturing centers of the US became a rust belt where formerly bustling cities now produce opioid addicts while the coastal intellectual media and service economic elite of America enjoy the mixed fruits and benefits o f “globalism”, post modernism while embracing post modernism and PC attitudes on a wide variety of issues.

    Yes-I support the policies that I mentioned yesterday, but one hopes that the necessary closure and its effects will be shorter rather than longer. We were never promised an economic rose garden, but we never anticipated that the American economy would be in such a free fall flight with respect to oil, the ability to move , shop and engage in that we long viewed as the basic elements of a Malchus Shel Chesed. In that regard, the Israeli response which combines both private, academic and military responses to the virus without nationalizing and bureaucratizing the response with unnecessary red tape appears to a major part of the response in the US to date. ( It is tragic but true that far too many on the left would prefer to see a permament shutdown rather than allow the response by the combined efforts of academia, the private sector and the not for profit sector. One can only wonder about the response of certain LGBT affiliated grourps and their fervent opposition to a field hospital built in Central Park. Would they prefer to see more Americans untreated from this disease?)

    Simultaneously, China has moved militarily in a manner to make the Pacific Ocean a Chinese lake and prosperity sphere , just like Japan before World War 2.In truly Orwellian fashion, China which has a veto in the UN Security Council, now is a member of the UN Human Rights Commission.This was where Sino Amerrican relations stood on the cusp of the pandemic. Readers interested in more detail in this regard should consult the various articles and podcasts of Gordon Chang on Sino Amercian relations and Chinese history.

    With that historical introduction in mind, we now can think about of Cheshbon HaNefesh. Prior to the pandemic, if you read the American English language Charedi media there were more than a few advertisements for high end trips to exotic locations and destinations, including China, as well as articles about how some of our community do business in China and keep Shabbos there etc. ( Fair disclosure: R Y Astor , who writes a fascinating column on history in the Yated, wrote an important, must read and eye opening article in the Yated about the Yuhan wet market and the ideology of Chinese Communism which was published in the Yated on the cusp of the shutdown ).

    It is no secret that Western liberal intellectual , media and progressives, in the same manner that they apologized for Stalin Mao and Castro, have ignored the simple facts and evidence that the CCP which runs the totalitarian government of mainland China, in its state owned media, and undue influence of the leadership and presentation of evidence to the WHO has failed to come clean in any way for its not insignificant responsibility in the origins of the Pandemic both in terms of the tolerance and promotion of the wet markets of Yuhan and the lack of a verifiable and completely objective investigation of the Wuhan lab where the virus escaped from and from where it was transported around the world.

    Instead. the totalitarian regime in Beijng has indulged in spin of the highest nature , wrapped itself in the rhetoric of identity politics to avoid any legitimate inquiry into its culpability, and is defending the open market and labs today and is hostile to any criticism both from within its orders and from the West.

    I believe that no American business should give up its American values and sell its soul in order to do business in a Communist totalitarian country. We should support the introduction in Congress and the passage of the equivalent of the Jackson Vanick Act with China in this regard. Senator Lindsey Graham, a great Ohev Yisrael, has argued that if we impose strict sanctions on Iran which exports terror, the same level should be imposed on China which continues to avoid an honest inquiry into the origins of the virus and seeks to blame the messenger

    Why should any of us want to directly or indirectly support a regime that actively suppresses scientific evidence, freedom of speech and every civil liberty and right that Americans value and are part of the Bill of Rights? Simply stated, given the economic downfall in the US( which the left desires and views as the basis for the establishment of more statism, less individual freedom and regulations in the long term ), but which now has been substantially decreased in terms of unnecessary regulations, this may well be the time to reinvest in the American economy. Put more starkly, let’s pay a role in rebuilding the American way of life in our Malchus Shel Chesed to use RMF’s phrase, as opposed to aiding and abetting the economic and political interests of such a regime that is the ideological heir of Stalin, Lenin and Mao.

    Such Chesbhon HaNefesh IMO should be as much a part of the discussion as looking for theodicy type solutions rooted in lack of adherence to a mitzvah, etc.

    If you read certain so called frum websites, you will receive links to masks being sold at wholesale rates. Take a look at the following link
    My questions to those who peddle the same -are such FDA approved and manufactured in the USA or where they were manufactured in a Beijing regime sweatshop with no guarantee or warranty as to their efficacy?WADR, IMO, it is the opposite of “ehrlich” behavior for anyone in our community to be remotely involved in facilitating the sale of susbstandard masks and PPE which are now being manufactured and sold in the US and YWN should reconsider whether such links are appropriate or a Chillul HaShem of no small proportions.

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