Naphtali Perlberger
Naphtali Perlberger

Devarim and COVID-19

Just when we thought the availability of vaccines would arrest the spread of COVID-19, it’s back again — today CDC warned that the Delta variant may be “more dangerous” than the original strain. For those of us who have been vaccinated, at least for now, only 3% of the hospitalizations involved fully vaccinated individuals, although breakthrough cases are popping out daily. Masks, etc., are becoming more required, little-by-little. Again, we are reminded, as we were during the Trump Administration, that 70-80% of the population needs to be vaccinated in order to create the possibility of “herd immunity”, and yet the “anti-vaxers” hold out.

Behind the statistics, there is the spiritual question of why did this pandemic come last year, and why is a second wave upon us?  “Follow the Science” appears more and more to be an empty phrase and full of contradictions, often daily! Did it leak from the Wuhan lab or what? All of this bombards us in social media and the news – the proverbial Everyman wants answers.

As a Torah observant Jew, I do not dwell on these questions that seek tangible “proof” in the context of physical, material, political, social or material data. While it may be “needed” to find out where and how the pandemic got its origin, this is not the material from which Torah-based individuals or institutions get their so-called answers. When I say, “Torah-based”, I come from three fundamental vantage points: (1) G-d wrote the Torah and transmitted it to Moshe, with a mesorah passed down from Sinai to the present; (2) G-d        is running the world and nothing is happenstance; and, (3) the Jewish People have the mission of being a “light unto the nations”.

With that framework, regardless of what mechanism released it into the world, COVID-19 has affected the entire world, regardless of race, color, religion, nationality or creed. As Jews, it is inescapable that whether any person was Orthodox, Conservative, Reform,  loosely or utterly unaffiliated, testing positive crossed over all of these artificial identities.

In Talmudic times, when there was a prolonged drought in the land, we not only prayed for rain, but we fasted and sought to do teshuva. Mindful of the second passage of the Shema,  we understood that walking in the paths of Hashem brought blessings (including, rain) and transgressing, i.e., following the path of other nations with their physically-based value systems and the avoda zara of serving other “gods”, resulted in “curses”, e.g., the absence of rain threatening our existence in the Land of Israel. These physical consequences, however, paled in relation to the ultimate consequences of living in the homeland promised to our Patriarchs or being forced into Exile.

Whether from a lack of emunah (Faith) or bitachon (Trust), or both, our cumulative transgressions led to the destruction of the First Temple.  Millions were slaughtered or subjugated first by the Babylonian and later the Persian Empires. This golus only lasted       70 years, and we returned to the Land and rebuilt the Second Temple. Did we learn?        Had we done complete teshuva?  Well, our Sages tell us that we refrained from committing the cardinal sins of murder, adultery and idol worship; but, we performed our mitzvot without joy and gladness of the heart, displayed by sinas hinam (baseless hatred) and loshon hara (slanderous speech). While we may have thought that these transgressions were minor compared to the Big Three, they nevertheless led to the destruction of the Second Temple and a Roman Exile that has lasted over two thousand years!  Why?  The simple answer is that we are practicing the sins of the Second Temple more so than ever before!

Hashem did not create Mankind so that we would be dominated by our animal souls and succumb to our evil inclinations. The world was destroyed in the time of Noah when there were no boundaries, when violence, mixing of species, robbery and the dominion of the material obliterated the spiritual foundations on which the world had stood: Torah, Avodah (temple service) and Gemillas Hesodim (Good deeds) [Pirkei Avos 1:2].

George Santayana warns: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” What have we learned from the destruction of two Temples?  The first, albeit horrific and traumatic, did not wake us up. A second came when we did not hear and see. In Devarim, Moshe admonishes and instructs us that Hashem gives life and death, blessing and curse.   The consequences are graphically and palpably spelled out BEFORE they occur out of Divine Love, so that we take heed, follow in Hashem’s Ways, and chose righteously.

We are approaching Elul. The month preceding Rosh Hashanah, and a time when “Hashem  is in the field” – right here with us. It is a month whose name is an acronym that simply declares: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is Mine.”  It is the month of teshuva, and in Chassidic and Sephardic circles, the shofar is blown each day leading up to the Day of Judgment – our wakeup call summoning us out of our spiritual slumber! It is a time of self-reflection, self-improvement, a return to our spiritual roots and mission, all in preparation for the month of Tishrei, when we are judged, repent and return, culminating in the joyful dancing surrounding the finishing and re-starting on Simchas Torah. We all seek, if we believe, to be inscribed in the Book of Life, for a sweet and meaningful New Year.

COVID-19 crippled our world, shut it down, and isolated us from each other. People died, lost jobs, economies crumbled.  It came suddenly and fiercely, and did it wake us up, change us, elevate us, bring unity and love to the world?  We find ourselves in a world more fractured, more divided, more alienated and more at war with itself than it has been since the World Wars. Instead of repairing and elevating our spirits, the opposite has occurred. And so, the wake-up call, as it came and fell on deaf ears when we were returned to the Land, returns in a second wave of yet unknown devastation.

Just as the pandemic affected all of us and everywhere, so must our teshuva repair our souls, and bring about a true unity and a lasting peace.  For me — I cannot speak for each of you who will read this article – I know in the depth of my soul that G-d wants such a world, and that we Jews (as well as righteous people of all faiths) have the mission to save the world. Beating COVID-19 is not, in my humble opinion, merely a matter of herd immunity or scientific solutions. Healing is making whole that which is broken. Shalom has the same root as Shelaimos. This is no coincidence. We must heal from inside-out!  This, I believe is the timeless message of Devarim and the response G-d is waiting for!

About the Author
Naphtali Perlberger is a senior lecturer for AISH HaTorah and gives weekly shiurim at Chabad of Golden Beach and Aish Chaim of the Main Line. He is one of the founders and a past president of the Philadelphia Community Kollel. He is Founder & President of Philadelphia Chapter of Children of the Holocaust, and past FJA Chairman of Men's Organizations; past President of Kosloff Torah Academy; and, talk show host for a radio show, "G-d is Listening".
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