Category Archives: Current Events

Statue of Limitations

The mass destruction wrought to historical statues and venues across America by the privileged and protected modern Philistines engenders the following question: Is there a difference between the demolition of Buddhist shrines by the Taliban, the destruction of Terach’s idols by Avraham and the tearing down of statues bearing the likenesses of flawed human beings taking place now?

The question remains even if we adopt the reasonable approach that the Midrash was not necessarily depicting a literal act on Abraham’s part but rather conveying the idea that Abraham shattered his father’s intellectual idols. Nevertheless, we have to clarify why is it that most civilized people were horrified by the Taliban‘s wanton acts, why we Jews from a young age are taught to applaud Avraham’s zealotry, and why so many people are ambivalent or even supportive of the  brutal erasure of America’s history – including some of its secular saints, sinners and founding fathers.

How do we distinguish one from the other?

It is first worth noting that if Jews wanted to enter the grievance competition, we could be very fierce competitors. Any self-respecting Jew should take umbrage at a highway be named for Franklin Roosevelt, whose administration, after all, did a little or nothing to save Jews during the holocaust and even thwarted efforts at refugee relief or disabling crematoria. Forget the statues; the FDR drive is an affront. Stuyvesant town and high school would have to be renamed because Peter Stuyvesant was a known Jew hater who banned Jews from his new settlement in lower Manhattan. The statues of Hadrian and Titus in Rome, like the statue of Bogdan Chmielnicki in Kiev, should cause profound pain and offense to any Jew. All were tyrants and mass murderers of Jews. As unseemly as the grotesque victimhood sweepstakes is, whatever evil was performed by Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson doesn’t compare to what the Roman emperors and the Ukrainian desperate did to the Jews. But we don’t go around seeking the destruction of their images because, to me at least, they serve as a constant reminder that we survived and prevailed. We won. It’s Hadrian and Titus and Chmielnicki and a host of others who have essentially disappeared from history.

There is even a better reason why we can take a more tolerant approach to these statues, and perhaps it takes a Canadian safely ensconced north of the border to offer a way forward and provide us with helpful distinctions. Jeffrey Collins, a professor in Ontario, suggested in the WSJ the other day that the first question to ask in evaluating any statue is why? Why was it erected in the first place? Whom was it intended to honor and for what?

Asked that way it is clear that Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, TR and FDR and others were honored not for their flaws or misconduct but for their accomplishments. The question really is do their flaws and imperfections outweigh the accomplishments? By any reasonable standard, the answer is of course not. If people were to be judged only by their sins and misdeeds, then no one will be deserving of honor. Washington and Jefferson are not being honored because they were slaveholders but rather because of their roles in the founding of America. Any rational person should realize that if we choose to honor only those without sin then no one will be honored, and that includes Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and George Floyd.

Thus, we can distinguish between a Washington, a Roosevelt, or a Columbus, and, as Professor Collins noted, a Stalin, whose evil dwarfed any nationalistic achievement. (Visiting Russia once, I personally witnessed the reverence some Russian still have for him, notwithstanding the Holomodor, the Jew hatred, and the Gulag, and found it quite shocking.) But even in the case of a scoundrel, it could very well be that a given locality would seek to pay him tribute (for example, in Russia or Georgia) where such would be horrific in any other place. Indeed, there are more statues of Stalin in Russia or Georgia today then there are of Lincoln in the south or Lee in the north.

Context is important, as well as a true evaluation of a person’s life and his essential pursuits and just not his imperfections. It should be obvious to reasonable observers that homage is paid to people not because they are perfect but because of their greatness in a variety of spheres that made a difference in the world in spite of their flawed humanity.

Professor Collins noted that the “why” question is not asked today and so all context and perspective is lost. Instead, the question asked is “how does make me feel right now?” That question is most in line with the narcissism of the protesters and many others today, whose sole barometer of anything is its momentary impact on their feelings. If so, the world is aflame because, among the rioters, there is a dearth of moral instinct and an abundance of faux outrage.

The Confederate statues present a sticky problem. Robert E. Lee was an American hero, who fought in the Mexican War and was commandant at West Point. Lincoln offered him command of the Union Army, which he turned down so as not to show disloyalty to his home state of Virginia. He was a professional who was instrumental in the post-war reconciliation – but since he is most known for waging war in the unjust cause of the South, a new generation that has not known slavery but only opportunity, is outraged at his existence and the reverence paid to him. As the respect paid him is largely owed to his military leadership of the Confederacy, he is a ripe target for the wrath of the disgruntled, and such wrath is inescapable.

Of course, the modern Visigoths would have a point if their only complaint was with the Confederate statutes. It seems their real complaint is with the United States, and such grievances cannot be assuaged in any rational way. They are enraged that Columbus “discovered” America. Mix in politics, power, money and elections, and it is a most combustible time.

Along these lines, if a statue reflected perverse and depraved ideas, then that statue as well would be a fair target. Hence, the adoration of Avraham, even if, again, it is unknown whether that tale is literal or metaphorical. And the Taliban, and their destruction of the ancient Buddhas in the Bamiyan Valley?

Certainly, we have no tolerance for idolatry. Its attendant philosophies devastated and corrupted ancient man, and its consequences are still felt today. But these statues were more historical than ideological, and their obliteration in 2001 were expressions of raw power, sheer ruthlessness and cruel conquest. Their destroyer, Mullah Omar, is now dead. His sole point was to destroy the shrines of an ancient religion to prove the superiority of his own corrupt philosophy. That is not Avraham. That is evil.

The modern demolishers have little in common with Avraham and much in common with Mullah Omar and the Taliban. What is especially troubling is that rather than recoil from the comparison, they probably welcome it. Ideas and values have been overwhelmed by chaos and anarchy. The wanton and gratuitous devastation (Ulysses S. Grant? Really?) has taken on a life of its own. Nihilism reigns supreme. The destroyers are intellectually limited and ethically stunted. The political class either encourages it or can’t stop it.

What can?

Reading G-d’s Mind

The joy of Shavuot was slightly marred by the appearance on that sublime, holy and transformative day in world history of a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg entitled “The Coronavirus Isn’t G-d’s Will.” I am quite aware that the provocative headline was not the author’s choice. Having been down that road several times myself, and having thoughtful pieces somewhat misconstrued because of incendiary headlines, I recognize that headlines are chosen by editors and not by the writers.

In this case, though, the headline is entirely accurate, as this one sentence indicates: “Religious authorities should lead in proclaiming that Coronavirus isn’t willed or inflicted by G-d.”  Well, how does he know that? Rabbi Greenberg has long been an iconoclast, but I immediately recalled the medieval philosopher (cited by, among others, Rabbenu Nissim and Rav Yosef Albo) who said of G-d: “Eelu yedativ, heyitiv” – “If I knew Him, I would be Him.”

Rabbi Greenberg presumes to know Him. Iconoclasm aside, how does he know? And how would traditional Judaism view the divine role in the current crisis? If anything, the pandemic should instill in us more humility before the Almighty, as we have experienced the limits of human knowledge, the frantic search for answers, and the collapse of the economic and social order as we know them, and all seemingly overnight. There has been a natural increase in prayer in the last few months, as people of all faiths have realized how little we control our lives and our world; such piety is to be encouraged, not derided.

His general point is that man has to act using our wisdom and especially our capacity for kindness, and that is well taken. So too are the targets of his displeasure, including his polar opposites (those who also think they know G-d’s will and attribute the pandemic to their favorite agenda) or those who deny nature entirely and thus presume that their faith renders them immune from disease. That is also sensible, but his road to that conclusion is littered with half-truths, ill-formed assumptions, clichés, and not a few heretical comments.

G-d has self-limited, says the Talmud, giving humans greater freedom and responsibility. The biblical age of visible miracles defeating evil has ended. The Lord asks the faithful to serve not to beget miracles, but out of love and shared fate. G-d shares our pain and asks us to take action to end the suffering.”

I am not sure where G-d’s self-limitation is mentioned in the Talmud, although there is a concept of tzimtzum in the Zohar that relates to how G-d, an incorporeal Entity, created a physical universe. And of course mankind has great freedom and responsibility. But R. Greenberg’s divine “self-limitation” seems less a catalyst for human action than it is an utter denial of divine providence. It is as if G-d was a Creator who then abandoned His creation to its own devices leaving behind a string of platitudes to guide them but certainly disdaining any form of enforcement of His moral system.

Who says the “biblical age of visible miracles defeating evil has ended”? Chanuka was post-biblical; did not Chanuka involve a visible miracle? There have been innumerable instances of miraculous events that have transformed battles and altered the destiny of nations – bombs that didn’t go off, events that defied nature and the laws of war, and the like – not to make even more numerous instances of decisions made or actions taken or not taken that were attributed by participants to nothing but Providence.

Indeed, this is a recurrent conceptual error in his musings here. “…the Creator’s presence and love are evidenced precisely in the miraculous functioning of the natural order… It is time for everyone to understand that G-d operates within the laws of nature, which are themselves miraculous.”  The world has always functioned pursuant to natural order, but nature and miracles are not at all identical. Greenberg disregards the concept of Providence, whereby God intervenes in human affairs according to His will that is inscrutable to man. Similarly, Providence and miracles are also not identical. Nature is nature; miracles are deviations from nature. Divine providence can employ overt miracles but can also manipulate human beings to serve G-d’s greater purposes. But R. Greenberg further erases from Jewish thought the concept of reward and punishment, for individuals and nations. The Creator of all is just a “good news G-d,” who just wants man to be good (as each person defines it) but otherwise is uninterested in those who perpetrate evil as He sees it. The author’s God does nothing except to ratify human conduct, to the extent that He cares at all. It is a bleak and materialistic picture.

The author further reduces God to being man’s partner without specifying a particular divine role. Clichés aside, what really does it mean that “G-d shares our pain… that we work with him to fight Covid-19 and develop cures and vaccines…to work in partnership with the Lord…”? How does G-d “share our pain”? We know what we have to do to fight this scourge and others – but what does He actually do? What is His role in the partnership, especially since He  has purportedly withdrawn from judging man for doing evil, relies on man to sustain the world by doing good, and mocks as “magical thinking” any person of faith who prays for miracles or salvation?

It is nothing less than cloaking G-d in human garb. He is what we say He is, we believe in Him and serve Him at our pleasure, and write Him out of the story when convenient or His bromides – especially on His moral order – are unwelcome to progressive thinkers.

One will look in vain in classical Jewish literature for even a hint that G-d is uninvolved in his world, sends no messages or punishments, and lets man alone to fend for himself and enjoy whatever immorality, venality or decadence suits him. One who believes that spends a lot of time on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur mouthing words that he simply does not believe:  “Who will live and who will die?…Who by plague, who by strangulation?…Repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree…You wish…that man repent and live…Have compassion on Your handiwork…Instill Your awe upon all Your work…Everything is known and revealed before You…Regarding countries it is said, which is destined for the sword and which for peace, which for hunger, which for abundance…” This is a fundamental principle of Jewish thought that his premise disregards, even disparages.

Greenberg intones: “The Lord calls us to join with him to fight suffering and to choose life over death.” And if we don’t? Well, there is really not much He can do about it, since nature rules and G-d’s active interest in mankind ended with the Bible. Belief in R. Greenberg’s powerless, figurehead deity, and rejection of God’s existence altogether, seems to be a distinction without a difference.

What lessons can we draw from the crises that are wracking our world these days? Certainly we should feel humbled, limited, and diminished. For all our sophistication and progress, medical science is always one disease behind perfect cures for everything. We solve one problem and another, unprecedented, presents. We can only evaluate at first based on precedents, however apposite or inapposite they might be.

In looking at our present tribulations, we can exclude one approach: the one articulated here, that “Coronavirus isn’t G-d’s will.” It is acceptable to say that “of course it is,” but the humble, human answer is that we just don’t know. But we are certainly allowed, even obligated, to assume that G-d is sending us a message. We are supposed to introspect, self-evaluate, and ponder a deeper meaning beyond the nuts and bolts of medically solving this problem and its consequences. It suffices to say that it might be    G-d’s will, which demands a prescribed response from us. And who among can dare presume that it isn’t G-d’s will?

The Rambam (Laws of Fasts 1:1-3) codifies that we are commanded to cry out to G-d over any communal affliction, including “pestilence.” “And this is one of the ways of repentance. When the community is tormented and cries out, it should know that this tragedy has befallen them because of their evil deeds…But if they don’t cry out or sound the trumpets but rather say that ‘this is the way of the world’ (i.e., nature!) and it is all coincidental [and without ultimate meaning] this is the way of cruelty and causes them to cling to their evil ways.” It is “cruelty” in the essential meaning of the Hebrew word – ach-zar – it is all foreign to me, it has nothing to do with me, and nothing to do with G-d.

That conclusion is cruel – cruel to the individual who believes it and to the community and world he is trying to heal.

Lacking prophecy, we cannot know with any specificity what sins generated this particular malady that is afflicting us. That is not the same as saying there is no sin, no sinner, and no repentance. Perhaps a good place to start our contemplation would not be in the newfangled progressive pantheon of sins but instead in the Bible itself, to see where we have strayed and to find our way back.

That, too, is G-d’s will.

 

The Pretext

The United States is experiencing paroxysms of violence that seem to erupt every now and then, oddly enough (perhaps not?) in years that feature contested elections. Think about the riots of 1968, 1992, 2016 and the current explosions and it is hard not to conclude that there is some connection – even though it has generally led to Republican victories that could not have cheered the rioters.

Nonetheless, it should be possible to denounce the despicable murder of George Floyd and its use as a pretext for the contemptible violence that resulted. Unfortunately, I tend to take a more lawyerly view of these proceedings after the visceral horror of the crime itself recedes. There is much that remains to be clarified: the look on the officer’s face while murdering another human being in cold blood was itself shocking. He was too calm, too detached, a sign of a sadistic psychopath – or what? Did he have a history of violence in his dealings with his arrestees, black or white? Surely this wasn’t the first black he arrested, and some for more serious crimes than in the instant case, but he didn’t murder any of them. I haven’t seen or heard a shred of evidence that the man was indeed a racist (he probably is, but nothing has surfaced to date – no internet posts, no attendance at KKK rallies, etc.). The modern narrative, though, is that any crime or even untoward act by a white to a black must have a racist origin. That is obviously the result of the identity politics game so popular today – you are not an individual but part of a group – but the narrative goes unquestioned. It could be that some racist motivation will emerge (or some other vicious rationale unrelated to racism) but worse than a white killing a black is just that a human being killed another human being.

That basic truth never seems to enter the equation. Thus, this past weekend saw 18 blacks murdered in Chicago by other blacks, and 16 more murdered the week before. That strangely evokes no outrage. Three years ago in Minneapolis a black police officer shot and killed a white woman. Race played no role in the evaluation of the case, which, of course, had it been the reverse,  would have resulted in swift and relentless rage. That, annually, whites in America are shot and killed by police twice as often as are blacks is also ignored, so more is afoot than this one brutal, inexplicable and evil act.

As strange as it sounds given the crime, the system actually works. No one has attempted to defend or rationalize the former police officer’s heinous crime. There has been no blue wall of silence; instead, there has been wall-to-wall and coast-to-coast condemnation on every side of the political spectrum.  He was charged with homicide, is being held in prison in lieu of bail, will be tried, likely convicted, sentenced to the maximum, probably not executed but effectively receive a life sentence because he will never be paroled. And that is how it should be.

So how do we get from there to this – in (Democrat-controlled) city after city in America, protests, demonstrations, rioting, looting, violence, mayhem and anarchy? Note that just last week, a synagogue in Cote-St.-Luc was vandalized, with the premises ravaged and Torah scrolls strewn about.  Canadian Jews in response did not torch downtown Montreal. So too, in the wake of the dreadful attacks on Jews in the metropolitan area in the last year, we didn’t go and raid Nordstrom. In the last month, there have been numerous demonstrations against the draconian lockdown rules that have destroyed the livelihoods of millions of people. The protesters were very angry – but there was not one instance in which they burglarized and looted the stores in which they wanted to shop.

These spasms of carnage always explode because of perceived racism, and they are more frequent in America because of the dearth of pushback, the fecklessness of the political class, and most importantly, the absence of values education. To condemn the murder and not condemn the rioting, as some moral poseurs have done, is virtue-signaling of the most hypocritical kind. To date, more people have been killed as a result of the rioting than the one unfortunate victim of police brutality in Minneapolis; that should be receiving more attention.

The virtue-signaling is particularly odious because the remedy proffered is an impossibility. To say that racism should not exist is like saying Jew hatred should not exist or nay other hatred, for that matter; it is true but not particularly helpful. Hatred is part of the human condition and has existed since the dawn of creation and will endure until the Messianic era. Calling for utopia is an empty gesture. We could all live quite well with what lurks in man’s heart as long as it is not acted upon. Actions matter.

The real question is not whether hatred exists but how we deal with it. Some ways are admirable: self-defense in the face of violence or understanding the root causes of the anger that resides in people, even in small groups of people, because dialogue does allow a healthy form of venting and can even lead to reconciliation and harmony.

What is especially perverse and loathsome is responding to unjustified violence with more unjustified violence. It is also pathetic and wins rioters no sympathy.  The violent lawless act of a rogue cop should not inspire violent lawlessness on the part of others. To give a pass to any individual or group  for committing mayhem is not the soft bigotry of low expectations; it is the hard core bigotry of no expectations. Marauding mobs do not inspire understanding or good will and make no one more kindly disposed to their “cause.” In fact, the opposite is true. The riots tend to reinforce the negative and harmful stereotypes that we are all trying to eradicate. Those who think their lives matter should act like their lives matter, and then they will matter. Jews have a long and lugubrious history of being murdered in cold blood but never have we sought to avenge those murders by killing or injuring or looting the property of innocent third parties. That injustice too cries out to the heavens.

How do seemingly normal people allow themselves to descend into such depravity? The Torah is instructive here as on all matters. The Sages taught us (Sotah 2a) that the portions describing the treatment of the Sotah (the straying wife) and the Nazir (who embraces additional restrictions) are juxtaposed to remind us that “whoever sees the Sotah in her degradation should abstain from wine.”

What is the connection? It is that a person who is so drawn to the spectacle of the Sotah that he goes to the Temple to watch it is already in a weakened spiritual state. His moral safeguards begin to fray as the crime of the Sotah, to him, seems less horrific and within the realm of the possible. And others join him too – and then all moral restraints are abandoned. Such a person has to regain his equilibrium by abstaining from wine that furthers clouds his conscience.

A normal individual will rarely do things while alone that he would do acting in concert with a supportive, protective group. The group – the mob – affords rationalizations and psychological safety that one does not have unaccompanied by others. That is why a German scientist, teacher, bureaucrat, lawyer or musician one day could become a murderous, malicious, ferocious Nazi the next. The group dynamic tends to dull our inhibitions. Hence the rioters, breaking into and ransacking Macy’s, Gucci, Microsoft and other fine stores. They weren’t seeking milk and bread. Their animalistic passions – what the Sages called the “nefesh habehami” that inheres in all of us – were unleashed. They are quelled in the short term when their energies dissipate (or the merchandise is gone) and in the long term only by teaching values, preaching to people that there is a divine moral code that constrains all of us, and that there is justice in the world – justice that is achievable but never through  torrents of injustice.

Apropos of the one who views the Sotah ordeal, all those who watched the cruel and evil murder of George Floyd cannot help but be diminished by it as human beings. It impairs our basic humanity. Those painful images will be difficult to uproot. But we respond to it by trying to become more human and more civilized, not less so.

The silver lining in this catastrophe is that the riots have driven the grim Corona virus from the news. Social distancing is a concern for fifteen people who want to daven together, not for several thousand people who want to protest and riot. Last week you could get arrested for opening a store; now you can’t get arrested for looting one.

This is how crazy the race wars have become. In California a “peaceful” young white protester smashed the windows of a vehicle that, unbeknownst to him, belonged to J.R. Smith, the black basketball player and former Knick. Smith chased down the perpetrator and beat the living daylights out of him. So: a white man protesting the death of a black man by demolishing the vehicle of a black man is then assaulted by the black man who is rightfully cheered for his efforts. Only in America.

This will end, until it starts again, but it will never really end. The nefesh habehami, once unleashed, is difficult to control.

It is going to be a long hot summer if cooler heads don’t prevail. The questions are: can America’s decline be reversed? And how?

The End Game

Is it too early to try to make sense of the Corona virus pandemic that has rocked the world? Trying to read God’s mind is always a hazardous and hubristic venture. We can never be certain of our conclusions.  On the other hand, we also risk losing the opportunity to evaluate where we are, what does God want from us, and further sink into the morass of materiality and happenstance.

One problem in this endeavor is that usually people try to interpret events in accordance with their conventional modes of thinking. And the ramifications of this crisis are multifaceted. It has shaken every societal and global institution. Americans have responded to the shutdown of society and infringements on personal freedom remarkably well, especially considering the disruption of family life and the collapse of the economy. The American economic juggernaut has ground to a halt. American politics, unpredictable for years, has descended into utter nebulousness.

The world has been brought closer in one sense, but in other ways remains the same. No place on the globe has been immune from the spread of disease; shared suffering has engendered some international cooperation. But it has also exposed some countries, such as China, as both victims and villains in this drama. The game of power politics and the desire for strategic advantage for some countries over others continue unabated.

All this misses the real point. Again, people are prone to seeing the world in a new situation as they have in prior situations. From a Jewish perspective, there are people who will look at any event and interpret it as a call for increased Torah study. Others perceive this plague as a divine mandate to do more acts of chesed, and in the current crisis opportunities abound. Aliya activists see the potential, with good cause, for a dramatic increase in Aliya. Still others will look at our closed shuls and conclude that God has not been happy with our communal prayer, and so has temporarily stripped us of it. And the Messianists see this, as they see everything, as an indication that Moshiach is coming soon.

All of that might be true and I hope they are true but I think they are reading into the situation more than simply interpreting the facts on the ground. And what are those facts? It is the one overpowering reality that mankind struggles with and has still not accepted: the reality of G-d’s existence and His mastery over the world. It is a time for teshuva, not just in the classic sense of repentance but in its literal sense of a “return,” a return to an awareness of G-d.

Even in nations that recognize God’s existence, He has been compartmentalized. G-d is “assigned” to a panoply of rituals, houses of worship, lifecycle events (especially tragic ones), and pious, platitudinous invocations often from impious people who enjoy platitudes. But the reality of His might, His dominance, and especially His morality is widely ignored. Society celebrates “the idols of the nations are silver and gold, the works of the hands of man” (Tehillim 135:15). The explicit intent of government officials is not to introspect on the broader meaning of life, which should be easier in an environment devoid of the mind-numbing, soul-crushing entertainment industry, but rather to get the economy going and have people dive right back into the crass consumerism that for many is the purpose of life and the source of their contentment and meaning. Certainly, a prosperous economy is critical to a functioning polity – but only because it then facilitates the more consequential pursuits of life. It should be the means to an end and not the end goal itself. When there are no or few consequential pursuits, then we wrongly admire those who have power and influence, and generally set the tone for the zeitgeist.

Who are the powerful? One might suggest the politicians, the generals, the tycoons, the scientists, the doctors, the clergymen and others. They are the ones who claim to have the answers for everything and promise us the fulfillment of our life’s ambitions – as long as we subscribe to their assumptions. And now we see the limits of their powers and how their answers are really not answers at all.

Of course no one saw this coming. Anyone (many do, in fact) can irrefutably predict an impending calamity because until it happens it is always impending. I can’t criticize any person for failing to anticipate something unprecedented; that is as unfair as it is illogical. But the responses to the disaster are illuminating in that they spotlight the wide chasm between our egos and our inadequacies.

The approaches of some rabbis to this catastrophe have been spot on, while others have been deeply flawed. The doctors are trying heroically to save lives, as are the scientists in the frantic research. There is no explanation why one person succumbs and another survives, why one man is afflicted and another woman is unaffected, why the elderly are most vulnerable and the young almost unscathed. There are theories – but the theories ultimately testify to how little we know. Hundreds of scientific papers from across the world have been published in the last six weeks alone with potential cures or treatments. That indicates not just their creativity and their untiring efforts but also their limitations. When there are many answers it means there is no one, real answer. Thus we are treated to the daily spectacle of “this drug works” and “no it doesn’t!” “We are days or months away from a vaccine!” followed by “No, you’re not,” with the sincere, mercenary and political motivations all jumbled. And when someone finds the answer to this disease, who can say that this won’t be followed by other medical challenges which are similarly confounding?

Those who place their faith in science – a staple of secular mankind since the Enlightenment – should re-evaluate, to say the least. (I don’t know anyone who has faith in politicians.) Simple questions – the efficacy of certain drugs, the existence of herd immunity for Corona virus or any immunity at all for those recovered – cannot be answered, are answered in the alternative, or will only be answered after the fact. We ask rhetorically in the daily Shacharit: “Are not all the mighty like nothing before You, men of renown as if they never were, the wise as if devoid of knowledge (science?), and men of understanding as if devoid of intelligence?”

It is indeed so, as jarring as it sounds and as humbling it is to the self-image of modern man. We try, we often succeed, we use our G-d-given intelligence to try to solve the mysteries of the universe and properly so – but “all is a fleeting breath,” a particularly evocative metaphor in these troubled times.

The wealthy – the group that is most idolized in a materialistic world – have seen the ground on which they walk shaken. The world economy is crumbling, and the markets are volatile. For sure, they are better able to absorb the blow than are the middle class or the poor. Pity those whose businesses will fail or are unemployed from companies that will not reopen. It was unthinkable even two months ago that supermarket shelves in the United States would be empty and that people would be lining up by the thousands to receive boxes of food from local authorities.

Everyone is groping in the dark for answers and perhaps the message is to look up. The atheist and vulgar materialist will find their explanations in nature and the like. They will be unrepentant until the end. They will continue to impose their amorality (often, immorality) on the world under the guise of rights, ethics, kindness and even morality but all “the works of the hands of man.”

Rambam (Hilchot Taanit, Chapter 1) writes that “when troubles, such as famine, a plague, or locusts befall a community, we are to cry out to G-d… It is one of the ways of repentance… And those who do not cry out but conclude that this is just ‘the way of the world and these tribulations are mere coincidence,’ this is nothing but cruelty that causes them to cling to their evil ways and it only invites more suffering.”

Why is this “cruelty”? Because cruelty (achzari’ut) is the feeling that “I am a stranger (a zar) to all this hardship. It has nothing to do with me. It is all coincidence.” Even an earth shaken to its core will not dislodge the unbeliever or the materialist from his world view; that too is an ordeal, of a different sort. Nevertheless, it seems that the scourge is having some positive effect. Last week, a Pew survey indicated that more than 25% of Americans report that they are praying more than they did before the crisis. If it is sustained, along with the humility engendered by this blunt encounter with our evident vulnerabilities, a vital transformation in society will have begun.

The times demand a reassessment of priorities and life’s purposes, a return to G-d as the Source of all life and not as a cliché, not as an image that we trot before our mind’s eye during periods of stress only to relegate Him to some corner (large or small, depending on the person) of our world in more normal periods. We know that Moshiach will arrive amid some global cataclysm, when mankind concludes that nature, science, wealth, or power do not have the solutions to what ails us. That despair forces us to look away from ourselves, to “lift our eyes on high and discern Who created all of these” (Yeshayahu 26:26). The sooner we do that, the sooner we will see an end to human suffering and malaise, and behold the dawn of the era of redemption.