Alon Goshen-Gottstein

A Spiritual Lesson from the Vaccine

Army Col. Sean Dooley, a doctor at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, receives a COVID-19 vaccination, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Md., Dec. 14, 2020. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)
Army Col. Sean Dooley, a doctor at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, receives a COVID-19 vaccination, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Md., Dec. 14, 2020. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando, Wikimedia)

I am grateful to be among the fortunate, country-wise and age-wise, who have received the vaccine against the Corona virus, both doses. The second dose led to a spiritual reflection that is, I believe, broadly applicable. I would like to share it. 

True to statistics, I got sick following the administration of the second dose of the vaccine. And I was sick indeed – fever, pain, weakness – the whole schpiel. And yet, as I then realized, I was not sick at all. I was actually healthy and what I was undergoing was an enhancement of my health, rather than its diminution. What I felt and what I was going through were opposite realities. Only by power of awareness, aided by knowledge of the circumstances, could I realize that reality was the opposite of what it seemed. I was not sick; I was very healthy.

Why is this such a revelation? Because on a small scale and under “laboratory” conditions, this allowed me, and could allow others, to explore a fundamental religious dynamic that pertains to the relations of good and evil and to our view of God. 

It looks bad, but it is good. This is the message the sages of the Talmud teach us, when they affirm that one must recite a blessing on hardships, as well as on good fortunes (Mishna Berachot 9). As the Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) tells us, Nahum Ish Gamzu (from whom our former Corona project coordinator got his name) had the ability to affirm that whatever transpired was for the good. As the Ba’al Shem Tov explains (Ba’al Shem Tov Al Hatorah, Balak, 8), it is not simply that the bad would eventually yield good. Rather, one can find the good even within the bad. And here we actually go a step further. What seems is bad is really in and of itself good. 

It is a commonplace of Hassidic teaching to affirm that even the judgements (dinim) associated with the divine names for justice, are in fact expressions of divine mercy, associated with the divine name of mercy. As one of hundreds of teachings, this one offered by R. Elimelech of Lizhensk, puts it, in commenting on Deut. 32,3:

Moses says to Israel, in accordance with my spiritual standing, all names (i.e. divine attributes) are compassion, even judgement is compassion…but for you, who have not attained this realization, give greatness to Elokeynu (our Lord), that is: you should give greatness, an epithet for mercy, to the name Elokeynu, which is the aspect of judgement, so you should bring to it Chesed Verachamim (compassion and mercy).

So, our ability to affirm the goodness of all is a matter of our spiritual standing, our state of consciousness, by means of which we can appreciate events as they unfold. Moses, represents a higher vision, where only the good is seen. Most of us are not capable of recognizing what seems to be bad as being truly good. It is, therefore a striving we must undertake, in order to bring chesed to the situation of judgement and limitation, to affirm that Gam Zu Letova.

Corona has been a time of testing for all of humanity. One of the important religious responses to Corona has been to find the silver lining, or in the terms of R. Elimelekh – to bring the chesed and the perspective that sees the good to the situation of the din, judgement and hardships. Finding the good serves a deep need we have to find meaning and to affirm the good. It runs deep in our psychological constitution. It is also fundamental to our spiritual constitution.  When I interviewed world religious leaders on religious responses to the Corona virus, one of the primary ways of finding meaning was to seek the good that the pandemic brings about. In a book length analysis of what the Coronaspection project taught us, one of the main lessons had to do with finding the good in a situation that seems to be bad. Finding the good allows religions to provide believers with one of the most important perspectives, for which they are carriers  – hope. All religions partake of the quest to provide meaning and to shape individual and collective responses to hardship in directions that produce growth, transformation, and positivity. A catalogue of positive lessons taken from the pandemic emerges from the 40 interviews that make up Coronaspection. These include: learning to make do with less; awareness of interconnectivity; learning to love even without physical connectivity; opportunity to reevaluate our lives and their priorities and so on. 

Book cover of “Coronaspection” by Alon Goshen-Gottstein

How much good one can find in a bad situation and whether it is a matter of finding the silver lining, or identifying the eventual good that comes out of the bad or attaining the deeper recognition that what seems to be bad is in fact good – all depends on the state of consciousness of the individual. As R. Elimelekh affirms, Moses is capable of seeing everything as good; others must strive to find the good and they can only find it in accordance with their own spiritual station. 

So, my takeaway from Corona Vaccine Dose 2 is the most basic exercise in finding the good and recognizing the illusion of what seems to be bad. It has allowed me to identify  a moment where awareness brings to light  the true meaning of the moment and the illusion of its hardships. It is a small moment where the mind can be trained, perspectives can shift, lessons can be drawn and we can reflect on how we deal with one of the most basic dichotomies of our life. 

About the Author
Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.