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.