(Otherwise, the whole thing can turn into an overwhelming fear-mongering dynamic, which is pointless. The entire purpose of fear is not crushing despair or paralyzing anxiety, but self-improvement via awareness of Hashem.)
On pages 32-34 & 44 & 103 of the Q&A, Rav Schwartz discusses the response and the "remedy" for coronavirus.
It has to do with self-nullification, which I stated before I'm not qualified to go into that. However, it's imperative to mention the basic idea of self-nullification: One should strive to internalize the fundamental idea of "Ein od milvado — There is nothing but Him."
And while in today's world of self-promotion and self-esteem, the very idea of self-nullification seems offensive or even frightening, a person who achieves true self-nullification experiences freedom & happiness on a level impossible to otherwise comprehend.
We see this among our tzaddikim who achieved this level, like Rav Aryeh Levin, a person who was wholly selfless and truly happy & content.
Self-nullification occurs when one wholly bonds to & unites with Hashem with no interference of cognitive dissonance or ego.
Self-nullification doesn't cause you to lose yourself.
On the contrary, self-nullification enables you to discover & fulfill the real you — the pristine neshamah residing within you.
Halevai I was on that level & could actually know what I'm talking about!
But that's the basic definition as written in books & exemplified by tzaddikim who reached that level.
Mesirut Nefesh: Breaking Your Middot
Different types & levels of mesirut nefesh exist.
One way is physical death.
But another (and more appealing) way is on the spiritual, nefesh level.
When you break your middot, you kill off your bad middot.
This is a wonderful thing!
Because we feel attached to our bad middot & taavot (desires), letting go of them causes pain.
Some people even define themselves by their bad middot or taavot.
For example, some people pride themselves on their sharp tongue (they call it "clever") or their insistence on always getting their way ("being assertive," "nobody's doormat," "never a sucker," "I don't take dirt from anyone," "nobody messes with me!").
Some pride themselves on their ability to control others, whether it's a classroom, an office, or their home.
I knew someone who prided himself on being an innate (and successful) businessman. However, he sunk to manipulative & exploitative behavior to maintain his self-image as "Benjy the Businessman!"
It took me a while to see that he wasn't a bad person, but his commitment to his self-image as "A Businessman" led him to behave with less compassion or integrity in business situations — behavior he took pride in.
Yet in other situations, he could behave with a lot of compassion and fairness.
But think of how hard it is for someone like him to relinquish his commitment to winning in business when his entire self-image depends on that.
It's a kind of death because he needs to let go of his pretend "self," which feels very real to him.
And the transition phase feels like a hermit crab switching from one shell to another: horribly vulnerable & desperate.
But completing the transition phase brings increased emotional maturity, wisdom, and satisfaction.
So it eventually feels good, but yeah, the transition phase is a wringer.
Mesirut Nefesh: Breaking Your Taavot
For people addicted to alcohol or drugs, dealing with problems by facing them head on is torture.
In fact, getting out of bed in the morning or facing the upcoming weekend with no high or drunkenness to look forward to often depresses the addict. (That's why treatment programs encourage them to take it one day at a time.)
Life initially feels blah without the hit people get from watching their favorite show/movie/podcast, smoking a cigarette, eating their comfort foods, reading their favorite non-kosher novels, social media, listening to their favorite non-kosher music, mixed dancing, unwholesome relationships, "juicy" gossip, or whatever is their taavah of choice.
So for such a person to think they'll never engage in a certain act or have that thing again...it's unbearable.
In fact, they often describe the desire for that which they deny themselves as: "It's killing me."
If it helps, the Pele Yoetz recommends relating to the pain of the unfulfilled taavah (specifically alcoholism) as a kaparah (atonement) for all the damage & transgressions caused while indulging in that taavah.
This puts a positive & beneficial spin on the pain of NOT getting what you crave.
In other words, the pain is l'to'elet; it is useful & rectifying. It has meaning & purpose.
Your Own Unique Mesirut Nefesh 2 Inches at a Time
The shaitel in question comprised 100% human hair & hung down to the wearer's waist.
The rebbetzin thought for a moment, then said, "Cut off 2 inches, then get back to me in a month and tell me how it went."
The woman thanked the rebbetzin, then went on her way.
My friend, a very unmaterialistic person who lives an especially simple life in Eretz Yisrael, witnessed the exchange in astonishment.
She asked the rebbetzin why only 2 inches? To my friend, that seemed insignificant. After all, even at 2 inches shorter, the shaitel remained far from tsniyus.
But the wise rebbetzin explained that a woman willing to invest in such a shaitel obviously felt very attached to that particular shaitel.
The woman also showed tremendous sincerity in that after hearing only a little mussar on the topic, she immediately sought to improve herself in this area. And the woman's question was open-ended. Notice that she did not ask whether she should do this or that, but she simply asked what she should, making herself vulnerable to a big & possibly overwhelming change.
If you think about it, the rebbetzin showed excellent judgement.
These types of shaitels cost more than a used car.
Women who invest so much money in such a shaitel also invested their hearts in the length, style, and color.
There is a very real emotional attachment to THAT particular shaitel in all its details.
Furthermore, if the woman made a drastic change in her shaitel, her family & friends will certainly respond and usually the response won't be one of praise & encouragement, but of discouragement. (Particularly if her husband likes her in the untsniyus shaitel and especially if his ego depends on having a trophy wife — which is a VERY un-Jewish attitude in marriage — and a husband's criticism of her appearance is a bitter pill to swallow.)
For most people, it's too much to ask of them to change their identity & self-image to that point (meaning, if the woman would cut her shaitel to above her shoulders, for example) AND the discouraging responses she's likely to receive from others.
It could cause her to give up completely. (Like selling the newly vamped shaitel and buying a new one with the old waist-length again.)
In addition, a human-hair waist-length shaitel has issues other than length. These types of shaitels look way too realistic & alluring from the front too.
Yet the rebbetzin only focused on one aspect of the shaitel: its length.
And she had the woman start with just 2 inches.
So for that woman, this is big-time mesirut nefesh. Hopefully, she continued on her journey toward a more dignified & refined hair-covering.
What of the woman who already wears a shaitel that conforms to all opinions of tsniyus (of those who permit shaitels)?
If she would look at the above situation superficially, she would go out & buy a custom shaitel that comes down to 2 inches above her waist and say, "I'm being mosser nefesh too!"
But for the one already wearing a refined & dignified shaitel, buying a nearly waist-length shaitel would be a HUGE step backwards!
It's a yeridah, not mesirut nefesh at all.
So we see that these things are individual.
We cannot copy the mesirut nefesh of others.
We must find our own.
Specific Acts of Teshuvah
Intensifying & deepening prayer is one strong recommendation.
As we've seen from Rav Avigdor Miller & others, focusing on one aspect of Shemoneh Esrei (like saying "Baruch...magen Avraham" with total kavanah and/or feeling a pang in your heart when you recite the prayer for the Beit HaMikdash) is an excellent way to start.
Bonding with Hashem even for only a few minutes every day is excellent. (Yes, 30-60 minutes is ideal, he says, but a few minutes is also very good.) Regarding time spent with Hashem: QUALITY is more important than quantity — especially now. (You can see this guidance on page 44.)
Our focus now is getting real.
Refraining from any type of lashon hara takes a lot of self-control. Depending on the situation & your own personal impulses, NOT saying something can feel almost physically painful.
And therefore, you receive FABULOUS reward for this restraint.
The only reason you restrain your mouth is for Hashem.
And that's such a beautiful thing.
Forgiving someone is also very powerful (both Rav Kanievsky & Rav Gedalyah Edelstein recommended releasing grudges in the coronavirus era).
Our reasons for holding tight to grudges & resentments can go very deep.
Working through this causes pain. (How much depends on the depth of hurt & anger & damage caused by the object of your resentment.)
Forgiveness makes you into a different person than you were before.
Forgiveness does not mean whitewashing truly bad behavior.
If someone intentionally & intensively hurt you, that is not so forgivable, practically speaking. After all, the person MEANT to hurt you and feels NO remorse. Maybe they're even happy about it.
Forgiveness in that case means connecting to the idea of emunah, that everything comes from Hashem.
That awful person was the agent for something you needed to go through for the rectification of your soul.
You don't pretend the person or the actions were okay. They weren't.
But you let go because you realize Hashem was behind the entire disaster and there is somehow in some unfathomable way a benefit.
I'm the first to admit this is much easier said than done.
But any step forward you can make in this area is a form of mesirut nefesh & very powerful.
Noting your spiritual progress & also feeling grateful for aspects of your life foster feelings of happiness & contentment.
Even if you can't manage to feel wholly happy & content, saying "thank You" to Hashem still increases happiness & contentment.
Even if you can't achieve a wholly positive state, a smidgen of positive feeling is a million times better than none.
The Specifics of Davening during the Coronavirus Era
That would be worse.
We should daven that coronavirus is uprooted BECAUSE everyone returns to Hashem and develop a warm & genuine connection with Hashem & our fellow human beings.
So we daven for a global return to Hashem & genuine connection with Him & other people.
We daven for the light of Redemption to illuminate all souls and we daven that a global healing is activated by kedushah (holiness) overcoming tumah (spiritual blockage/impurity).
Another Tip for Successful Mesirut Nefesh
Unless the other person is spiritually aware, they often discourage or mock you for your efforts.
This can ruin everything.
This caution contradicts the newest generation, in which every little thing you do needs to be photographed and advertised on Instagram.
Of course, you can share your baby steps (or your grandest efforts) with another person, but only if that person will recognize your individual need for this particular type of mesirut nefesh, and will validate your efforts.
Many times, your efforts will be between you & Hashem.
And that's perfectly fine.
You're making Hashem supremely happy & that's all that matters.
Even a Tiny Drop MATTERS!
Drop after drop fills a lake.
Drop after drop erodes stone.
On page 32, Rav Schwartz reassures us that person can activate a little bit of mesirut nefesh by working on just one area, as long as it is an area on which one needs to work.
Mesirut nefesh is channeling the power of death in a holy direction.
Rather than destroying your body, you destroy your unhealthy ego and bad middot.
You destroy the tumah blocking you from being your best — the wonderful person you really are underneath all the spiritual blockage.
By taking only 1 thing each day — something you personally find difficult — and working on that, you achieve a form of mesirut nefesh.
That's Rav Schwartz's practical advice.
On the emotional inner level, Rav Schwartz recommends cutting oneself off from everything that's happening in the world. He encourages a feeling of separation from the entire world.
He emphasizes doing this "deeply," which I think means not only that you stop checking the news or social media, but that you make yourself realize how meaningless much of it is so that you don't even WANT to see the podcast of your favorite political commentator or check your social media account every 5 minutes.
It's important not to misunderstand this.
He means the world & all the distractions & fake news.
He does not mean to stop davening for people or to ignore pleas for verified tzedakah campaigns.
We still need to look both ways before we cross the street and cultivate warm, caring connections with others.
We should concern ourselves with the genuine emotional & material needs of those around us.
But many things portrayed as A Very Big Deal do not actually matter. It's sheker.
Summary of Main Points
- Focus on mesirut nefesh & self-nullification
- Start small: Pick ONE thing in ONE area YOU find challenging.
- Make it individual; Hashem created you unique with unique needs.
- Daven for the right things: Redemption, Divine Illumination, the victory of kedushah over tumah, etc.
- Do not daven for things to return to normal. (What we consider "normal" is actually sick & warped.)
- Try to cut off & distance yourself from the world as much as you can.
- Aim for real inner change (though only practical behavioral change is also really good).
May Hashem grant us all tremendous hatzlacha & bracha in our spiritual endeavors!