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.


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.


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.


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.