As we find ourselves trying to continue some semblance of normalcy as this pandemic drags on, we are constantly forced to modify our expectations. First it was Pesach plans, then canceled or vastly diminished bnei mitzvah or wedding celebrations, then no more school for the rest of the year, and now it’s graduation season. Many who have spent many years working hard in middle school, high school, college, graduate school, etc., want to celebrate this moment with their peers. They want their accomplishments to be recognized and they want to express gratitude to those who have impacted their lives. Instead, they will have to be creative with virtual, drive-by or parking lot graduation ceremonies. And they are being creative. There is some amount of frustration, but it was heartening for me to hear some students who have recognized that what’s going on is bigger than their personal experience, that it’s about the health of society and the Class of 2020 will be a special class as their experience will change them. They said that the Class of 2020 will learn the value of resilience and the willingness to sacrifice for their communities, a sentiment that is truly special.
As Torah observant Jews, I think that some of us may be struggling with this pandemic in the following manner. We believe that everything comes from Hashem and it’s all for the best. Do we try to figure out root causes and how we can become better people because of this? Do we simply say that this is something that happened and we must remain committed Jews? Do we try to find a silver lining and say in retrospect that we are better off because of this?
It’s important to note that this question of theodicy, of why bad things happen to good people, is something that we try to understand even when we are not going through challenges. This question is part of Talmud Torah, or Torah study. This is the question that Moshe asked God at Har Sinai according to our Sages when he said, “Har’eini na et kevodecha,” or “Let me behold Your Presence” (Shemot 33:18). He wanted to know why God created a system where bad things happen to good people.
Of course, this question now is halacha l’maaseh. It is relevant. My Rebbe, Rav Michael Rosensweig, recently spoke to a group of Rabbanim and I found his theological formulation of this pandemic to be particularly helpful to me personally. We don’t seek adversity, but we all have the opportunity to transform adversity into something constructive. This is essentially what the Ramban wrote about the Akedah, that it provided an opportunity l’hotzi hadavar min ha’koach el ha’po’al, or to bring out the matter from ability to actuality. In the case of the Akedah, that matter was Avraham’s willingness to sacrifice everything for God. As we all know, all experiences have the ability to transform us. Perhaps Sefer Kohelet says it best. After spending an entire Sefer wondering about so many seeming inconsistencies in life, the author tells us, “sof davar hakol nishma et ha’Elokim y’ra v’et mitzvotav shemor ki zeh kol ha’adam,” or ”the sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all mankind.” At the end of the day, we try to work on our yirat shamayim and mitzvah observance during both easy and difficult times.
That is not to say that we just chalk this pandemic up to a random natural set of causes and ignore it and just work on our yirat shamayim. In Hilchot Taaniyot 1:3, the Rambam writes that if we assign adversity to coincidence, and the way of the world, then this constitutes cruelty. Rav Rosensweig explained that this ideology of coincidence, of not seeing God’s Divine hand when our nation and certainly the world as a whole is suffering like this, can lead to a very cruel life because it is a life devoid of accepting responsibility. We know that Hashem is talking to us that we must improve our ways, but in the absence of prophecy, there can be no conviction as to the definite reason of this calamity or the definite area in which we should improve. In general, we use this time of adversity as an opportunity for spiritual heroism, as an opportunity for re-ordering our own values even if we cannot control the swirling currents around us. Can we cultivate our religious personality in a manner that stimulates a response from within, to advance the cause of our avodat Hashem? That is our religious mission during these times.
I feel bad for our graduates who do not have the opportunity for a standard graduation, I am amazed at all the creativity that so many schools used in trying to make the graduations special. Most importantly, I hope that after this pandemic is over, the graduates of 2020 will look back and reflect on a time when they acted heroically and demonstrated resilience in the model of our patriarch, Avraham Avinu.