A Spiritual Response to the Coronavirus

A few weeks ago, I was dismayed that our family’s Pesach trip to Italy was canceled but grateful that we were able to get our plane tickets refunded.  We were thinking, instead, of traveling to Florida for part of Pesach.  I was very confused, torn between experts who said that we are overreacting because of the few deaths compared to deaths from the flu and experts who said that we are not reacting fast enough to protect ourselves from the spread of the Coronavirus.  Now, on a very selfish level, I’m wondering if our family will be forced to postpone our son’s wedding which is scheduled for a few days after Pesach.

In the few weeks that have passed things have only seemed to escalate. Many of us are understandably scared, with some of us feeling especially vulnerable. We are worried for ourselves and our families and friends, especially the elderly amongst us.

I keep telling myself two things.  First, mi’she’nichnas Adar marbim b’simcha.  We increase happiness during the month of Adar.   When we diminish joy during the month of Av, this reminds us of a sad time in history when our enemy had broken through the walls of Jerusalem and were marching towards the Temple to destroy it in the month of Av.  Indeed, there are specific guidelines to minimize happiness in Av by refraining from certain types of festive planting and building.  However, there are no specific guidelines to increase happiness in Adar and there is no specific historical event that took place during the month of Adar that underscores this happiness.

Perhaps the goal during this month is to reflect upon the quality of happiness and to use this month to teach us about this character trait.  The Sfat Emet explains that the increase in happiness is not related to Purim, but it reflects the month when the Jewish people would make their annual donation for the public sacrifices of the coming year.  The happiness of Adar is the happiness of giving, of service, of the entire community coming together and participating because happiness is generated when we live a life of service.  This year, the happiness of Adar is taking care of those who are in need because of this pandemic.  The happiness of Adar was making sure that we had extra readers going from house to house on Purim to read the megilla to people in small groups who did not feel comfortable hearing the megillah in large settings.  The happiness of Adar was making sure that those who were in quarantine were able to hear the megillah via a livestream.  The happiness of Adar is knowing that when one Jew is in need, an entire community is there to help that Jew.  The truth is that it’s hard to feel happiness when so many in our broader community need a refuah.  But I would still argue that this is our theological path forward.  We respond to crisis by helping those in crisis.

Second, it is important to recognize that this is the optimal time to build a relationship with God through prayer.  The Ramban writes that the only Biblically-mandated prayer is prayer in times of crisis.  Every other prayer, such as the prayers that we recite on a daily basis, was only created by the Rabbis.  While this may seem intuitive – to call out to God in our suffering and pray – in fact, doing so represents a real theological challenge.  It is easy to believe in God when everything is great, and to sing His praises.  However, to turn to God when we are faced with questions – why do I have this illness, why can’t I find a shidduch, why can’t we have children, why can’t I find a job – indicates a desire to feel connected to Him even when we struggle with His will.  Turning to God during times of crisis means that we remain faithful even when it is hard to have faith.  This is the essence of prayer.

We pray that God should answer our prayers in this time of crisis and heal all those who are suffering from this horrible virus.  And I hope that instead of focusing on the missed opportunities and disruptions to our plans, I will focus on the opportunity that this pandemic does provide for me:  an opportunity to extend myself and give in new ways, and an opportunity to pray from a place of new meaning.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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