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The 222-Year-Old Vaccine

Friday, 4 December, 2020 - 7:52 am

Wearing masks and avoiding contact is one way to dodge infection from a disease.

Once a person has had the disease, however, the body is often able to defeat it on its own.

This is why so many people are waiting with bated breath for a covid-19 vaccine. The hope is that we will be able to get back to life as we once knew it after a vaccine is successfully rolled out.

The fascinating thing about vaccines is that a small interaction with the disease teaches the body how to fight a full-on threat in the future. There are various methods of inoculation – and I am not a medical expert, nor have I studied the proposed vaccines for covid-19. The common denominator of all vaccines is utilizing the disease itself to prevent its future spread.

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In this week’s parsha Vayishlach, our Patriarch Yaakov (Jacob) heads toward the land of Israel, after an absence of several decades. He knows that his wicked brother Esav (Esau) – who vowed to kill him – is advancing with 400 armed men.

Their ensuing encounter is remarkable. Miraculously, they embrace and part ways on somewhat peaceful terms. While Esav does not endorse Yaakov’s way of life, he still puts down his arms and leaves Yaakov unharmed.

Our Sages teach that Esav was the ancestor of the nation of Edom, which morphed into the Roman Empire, the predecessor of the modern Western world as we know it. As such, Esav represents the powerful culture that, for much of history, has harmed and harassed the Jewish people.

Remarkably, from the Syrian-Greeks at Chanukah to the Spanish Inquisition, the Jewish people have survived – again and again.

This initial interaction between Yaakov and his nemesis Esav is the inoculation that helps us survive and thrive under some of the harshest physical and spiritual circumstances.

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Tonight marks 222 years since the liberation of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad, from Czarist prison. Yud Tes Kislev is considered the Chassidic New Year, and is marked by farbrengens, festivities and learning. We will be holding our own Zoom evening of inspiration, A Light on the Path, tomorrow night at 7:30 PM. According to Chassidic tradition, the Rebbe’s historic release from prison opened the floodgates of Chassidic teachings.

But, what are Chassidic teachings? What is the role and contribution of Chassidic philosophy? Why does the average Jew need Chassidus?

Let’s mix the ancient and the modern to understand this.

Up until the advent of Chassidus, Jews were worried about the spiritual influence of Esav. So, they masked up and avoided contact. By focusing on holiness and living in isolation they were able to fortify themselves against the unwanted effects of negative pressures and powers.

But, what happens when an individual is exposed to the virus? What happens when – despite the best efforts – the impurity and cruelty of our enemies starts spreading within our midst? What happens when the virus is inside me? Am I then powerless?

As the virus of negative and impure influence was integrated deeper and deeper into the Jewish psyche, pervious methods proved insufficient. We were losing too many Jews to persecution and assimilation; to fatigue and weakness.

What they needed was a vaccine. A peek at the nature of the virus. To understand it and conquer it.

That’s exactly what Rabbi Schneur Zalman – and the successive Rebbes of Chabad – taught. Chassidus did not invent anything new. Rather, it helps us understand the mysteries of the world and the soul. It even gives us a glimpse into the animal within us. Using this glimpse, we can see the world – and our own negative impulses – not merely as an enemy, but as a potential accomplice. We can safely inoculate ourselves from their persecution and influence. And, we can manipulate the spiritual viruses, to become tools of protection.

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The Mystics teach that Yaakov was eagerly marching toward Esav. Yaakov was hopeful that Esav was ready to undertake a complete turnaround. Unfortunately, Esav wasn’t prepared to do so. He and his ilk would remain a menace to Jews and Judaism for generations to come.

There will be a time, however, when Esav is ready to embrace the vision and lifestyle of Yaakov. It’s what we pray for numerous times a day – the coming of Moshiach. At that point, the virus will be wiped off the face of the earth.

In the meantime, we can study Chassidus and inoculate ourselves.

And, through Chassidus, prepare the world for a time when the virus is gone. Completely.

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