By nature, humans are social beings, and COVID-19 has dramatically impacted the way we normally function. School, work and leisure have all been affected and suffered under the necessity of social distancing.
This has been an especially difficult and trying time for Jews, whose communal worship with a minyan (a quorum of 10 men) at shuls and the study of Torah in Yeshivot has been severely disrupted.
This seclusion and retreat into our homes is especially noticeable on the holiday of Shavuot, when we commemorate the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai 3,332 years ago.
As a student and teacher of history, I have always been interested in the historical aspects of Judaism. One of the unique features of Shavuot was the sense of community that it engendered; every single Israelite man, woman and child was present at Mount Sinai. Our rabbis even argue that the souls of all future Jews and converts who would be born in subsequent generations were also present and heard the Ten Commandments.
The togetherness of Shavuot contrasts with the Pesach Seder, which is meant to be celebrated with our families and friends in private groups (chaburot).
Shavuot stresses the importance of community, and it seems ironic that this year it is now being commemorated in isolation. However, I believe a closer look at the history of this event may well offer a different perspective of this yom tov.
The original holiday of Shavuot was the culmination of seven weeks of intense introspection and soul searching that the Israelites undertook after the Exodus from Egypt. During this period, which is now commemorated by Sefirat HaOmer (the counting of the Omer), the Hebrews reached the pinnacle of spiritual perfection, and the community was rewarded with the Ten Commandments and the Torah at Mount Sinai. Unfortunately, the nation was unable to maintain this dizzying level of holiness, and they crashed to the ground 40 days later with the golden calf. Moshe was so horrified by this act of idolatry, that he broke the Ten Commandments at the foot of the mountain.
Instead of giving up on the Israelites, Moshe successfully interceded with G-d on behalf of his flock. Eighty days later, he returned from the summit of Sinai with a second set of the Ten Commandments. This time, G-d told Moshe that no one was allowed near the mountain; as the Biblical commentary by Rashi puts it, “There is nothing better than modesty (Exodus, 34.3).” Moshe delivered this second set of the Ten Commandments to the Israelites in quiet solitude, without any fanfare, gatherings or welcoming committees. Although their location is currently unknown (until the coming of Moshiach), they are complete and whole, and will never be broken.
While Judaism cherishes its sense of community and strongly encourages shul attendance, the story of the Ten Commandments underscores how solitude and seclusion are also valid paths to communing with G-d and attaining higher levels of self-improvement. Ultimately, whether we celebrate our Yomim Tovim with a minyan or, due to COVID-19, daven by ourselves in our homes, we are never alone — G-d is always with us.