Are We Being Punished? Are These the Birth Pangs of the Messiah?

As we watch the number of Coronavirus cases rise, the stock market plummet, Pesach plans canceled, Semachot postponed or being celebrated with minimal attendance, many of us are trying to come to grips with this surreal reality, and hoping it will be short-lived.  We hear names of those who are sick, some of whom may be close to us, and we cannot help but ask why this frightening situation has come to be. Some of us look for spiritual answers, believing that this must be a punishment of some sort.  I tend to refrain from making such assertions.  First, I am not a prophet so I don’t know for sure why God allows these things to happen.  Second, even if such statements may be true, I am concerned that they may be perceived as insensitive if indeed righteous people suffer who may not deserve such punishments.  We can argue that sometimes God punishes the world for the sins of society and individuals who didn’t sin suffer alongside everyone else because that’s just the way it is, but I would rather leave these theological questions as questions.

Others assert that the world is coming closer to the days of the Messiah.  I tend to refrain from making these types of assertions, as well. I am reminded of how the Jews in the 17th century were searching for a glimmer of hope after the horrific slaughter of Jews during the Chmielnicki massacre from 1648-1649, when, according to some reports, hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed and countless Jewish communities were destroyed.  Many Jews at that point thought that these massacres were the birth pangs of the messiah and they took solace when a man named Shabbetai Zvi asserted that, indeed, he was the anointed one.  And we know how that story ended.

What gives me a boost of inspiration is neither searching for a reason for this calamity nor believing that this is definitely the precursor of the messiah.  Rather, it is the story when Rav Aaron Soloveichik was afflicted with a stroke.  In 1984, Rav Aaron Soloveichik wrote that as he lay in a hospital bed in Evanston Hospital in Chicago afflicted with a stroke, he now had a greater understanding of how a soul can be extraneous to the body. In a letter published in Tradition, Issue 21:3, he wrote, “Until last Sunday evening, however, my belief in the existence of a soul extraneous to the body had been grounded in Emunah (faith).  It was not something that I could perceive through the senses.  The stroke that afflicted me wrought a spiritual metamorphosis in my whole weltanschauung, on my whole outlook on life.  As of Sunday evening, my belief in the existence of a soul extraneous to the body is not only based upon a religious orientation but is something that I am perceiving through my physical senses as a biological sensation.”

Rav Aaron Soloveichik truly suffered from this stroke, but he used it as a way to deepen his religious worldview.  He viewed every challenge, even a debilitating challenge, as a tremendous spiritual opportunity.  He wrote, “This is the gist of my glimpse at eternity from a chamber in a hospital dungeon…  The expression “from a chamber in a hospital dungeon” is merely descriptive of the agonizing condition that overtakes a handicapped body and an anguished heart tossed by numerous and multifarious feelings of frustration, loneliness, detachment and abandonment.”  Frustration, loneliness, detachment and abandonment… and yet, he uses the experience to deepen his understanding of and commitment to God.

Maybe this is why the Gemara in Brachot tells us to bless God on the bad just as we bless God on the good, because every new situation is an opportunity.  We didn’t seek this opportunity. We wanted our Pesach holiday to unfold as planned.  We wanted to celebrate our Semachot with all of our friends.  We didn’t want to think about possibly of spending the Seder alone.  But this is the situation in which we find ourselves.  I look at this as an opportunity. I look at this as an opportunity to stretch ourselves to help others who are struggling in ways that we have never done.  I look at this as an opportunity to look Heavenward and say with a full heart, “Despite these circumstances, I have complete faith in God.” I look at this as an opportunity to strengthen our relationships with our loved ones who are quarantined with us.  I personally do not know why God did this or whether this is the harbinger of the Messiah, but I reflect upon Rav Aaron Soloveichik’s letter while suffering in Evanston hospital in Chicago in 1984 as a source of tremendous strength.

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