Experiencing The Miracle In Reverse: Jewish Community In The Age of Covid
My father, Rabbi Ephraim I. Zimand, of blessed memory, loved Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of the Sages,
above all Jewish sources. He devoted countless hours to studying it, teaching it and compiling the
wisdom flowing from it in big black binders. Just grazing the surface of the
text’s depths or of his learning, I have returned repeatedly in my career as a Jewish educator to
one short line near the end of the tractate, with appreciation for the guidance and inspiration it
packs in just four words presenting a miracle. Over these recent months of great tribulations for
the entire planet, I have considered these words once again and wondered if the challenges before
us include finding ways to experience the miracle they describe in reverse.
In Avot 5:5, amidst a list of ten wonders our ancestors experienced in the Holy Temple, the text
describes worshippers as omdim tzfufim umishtachavim revachim, “standing crowded and bowing at full
length.” The expression refers to the atonement rituals of Yom HaKippurim, reporting the marvel
that jostling shoulder to shoulder did not preclude those in the congregation from bowing fully
prostrate to express their confessions. This is a lovely image and one that lends itself to
multiple interpretations, especially by focusing on the single letter u, “and,” to explore
different ways we might understand it, along with the words surrounding it.
THE FOUR “ANDS”
1. In context, arguably the most natural reading is “yet.” The presence of throngs of people
should have made bowing impossible, and yet the miracle insured sufficient space where none was
apparent. This possibility lends itself to more commonplace applications as well. My father would
use these words to encourage my siblings and me to see that there was always room for another
person at the table, or that, somehow, we would manage to squeeze all six of us into a small car
(before the age of “one seatbelt per passenger”). In more elevated realms, he reminded us that we
can transcend perceived limitations, in time and space and visions of what is possible.
2. Commentaries also note the sense of “also.” The gathered worshipers could simultaneously
experience the power of being together, tightly bound, and also find space for private, deeply
personal, supplications. This is another lovely idea, one that conveys the sacred nature of both
the community and of the individual.
3. Along with simultaneity, “and” can express contrast, “whereas.” Using this approach,
we can find a metaphorical, ethical message in the passage: when we stand—backs
against the wall, heels dug in—we feel crowded, whereas when we bow, honoring space for others and
for their views, we recognize the spaciousness that surrounds us. This approach suggests the
precious Jewish notion of machloket leshem shamayim, honoring the value of dispute in the name of
heaven, a value that has fallen on hard times in our own era of echo chambers, when we stand
divided and in separate camps.
4. In a related spirit, “and” can also convey causation, “therefore”: they stood shoulder-to-
shoulder, bound together, and therefore—precisely for this reason—they could extend themselves.
SEEING THE MIRACLE IN DAY SCHOOLS
All of these interpretations carry particular power for me as a Jewish educational leader. Indeed,
I appreciate how the four variations on the meaning of the letter u in omdim tzfufim umishtachavim
revachim express core features of the distinctive powers of Jewish day schools. Our educational
institutions strive, with devotion to the next generation, to transcend perceived limitations,
advancing the faiths that we can find enough hours in the day for all the riches of our curricula,
that we can navigate the financial challenges before us, and that we can secure room for all of the
youth in our communities, with the varied needs they present and the distinctive contributions they
offer. We strive, in a related spirit, to honor the sacred nature of both the individual and the
collective, simultaneously celebrating how good and how pleasant it is for us to sit together,
Hinei ma tov uma na’im shevet achim gam yachad” (Psalm 133:1), even as we also hold the conviction
that each of us, with our own inestimable value, is created betzelem Elohim (Genesis 1:27), in the
image of God.
Day schools, at their best, also carry forward the spirit of inquiry and the proud culture of
honorable disputation deeply rooted in our intellectual heritage. In this way, they nurture the
pursuit of wisdom beyond mere knowledge, and they offer a powerful alternative, and hopefully
antidote, to our contemporary context that has increasingly squeezed opportunities for constructive
back-and-forth. Finally, we seek to serve the interest of the future, with the conviction that it
is precisely by bringing people together that we make it possible for us to extend ourselves at
greater length than we would otherwise have thought possible.
REVERSING THE MIRACLE
Of course, these ideals have been sorely tested amidst the protracted global pandemic still before
us. If our ancestors experienced the miracle of finding space to bow down the full length of their
bodies even as they stood shoulder to shoulder, we seek a “miracle” that shifts the words of Pirkei
Avot into reverse. We must be mishtachavim revachim ve’omdim tzfufim: even as we are necessarily
socially distanced and reliant on remote communication, we must find ways to keep our communities
tightly bound together.
In this reversed framework, schools, other institutions and individuals can still find guidance and
inspiration in four different understandings of the letter u, pronounced v in this case, still
meaning “and.” Nearly all of us can point to ways that we have experienced the isolation of the
pandemic, and yet have registered possibilities for connection that we had underutilized before. I
know that my own family, divided between the United States and Israel, has engaged in more regular
communication than it had pre-Covid and has recognized in more thoughtful ways the possibilities,
despite distances, for shared occasions, like baby namings celebrated across ten time zones.
Thicker communication does not automatically translate into deeper exchange, and here, as the
passage from Pirkei Avot reminds us, we need to take care to honor the sacred nature of the
collective and also of the individual, at a time when we have gotten too many poignant reminders of
how much we need to treasure opportunities for face-to-face, eye-to-eye, heart- to-heart, and
shoulder-to-shoulder contact. “Gallery View” can be a wonderful thing, and we also must not let it
displace calls to feed the human need for the intimacies of being present for one another as ones,
individuals making our way through a global calamity in individual ways.
Our passage, in reverse, again offers a metaphorical, ethical message. If, as a result of
circumstances beyond our control, we throw ourselves down—prostrate on the couch perhaps—we will
experience distance that much more; whereas, if we pick ourselves up, stand tall to meet the day,
come what may, we will have more opportunities to sense the connections that transcend distance.
For distance is, in its own way, a limitation. But we have the capacity to be mishtachavim
revachim. extending ourselves full length, and therefore, precisely for this reason, we also have
the capacity to remain omdim tzfufim, bound tightly together and thus prepared through our
collective strengths to meet the challenges of our day
and those that will follow.