After 9/11, I attended a Rabbinic symposium and the guest lecturer asked if we had any questions. I said “I feel like G-d is holding up an enormous billboard, but I can’t read it.”
19 years later I don’t have a whole lot more clarity on what G-d wanted to communicate to us. The current pandemic also seems, from its enormity, to be a sign from G-d. But what exactly is the message? Granted each of us can take away a personal message to better ourselves and live a more spiritually connected life. But has G-d embedded in this unprecedented event a message for the world?
You may not have expected to find answers in Parshat Vayikra since it deals primarily with sacrifices. However, Midrash Tanchuma on Vayikra delves into a story of a well known Biblical character struggling to comprehend messages – Jonah.
According to the Midrash, when Jonah decided to flee from G-d he ran to the port to board the first passenger ship sailing out of Jaffa. He saw a ship in the far distance but it looked like it would take 2 days to reach the shore. Suddenly a storm appeared and the high winds brought the ship ashore. Ironically, Jonah took this as a sign that G-d was pleased with his decision to flee.
If a prophet can’t read the signs, how can we
Midrash Tanchuma makes an important distinction. The storm that brought the ship to shore was not a sign, it was a test. Perhaps what the Midrash means is that as a prophet, Jonah is supposed to convey G-d’s messages to the Jewish people and to the world. He is supposed to follow G-d’s directives. Fleeing from his mission was not the right choice because he was following his own moral compass. Midrash Tanchuma emphasizes this with unusual language describing Jonah’s thought process.
“Jonah judged the case between him and himself.”
The back story you didn’t learn in Hebrew School
The Midrash provides a fascinating backdrop to the story. Jonah’s first mission went as planned, He prophesied that the King of Israel, Jeroboam the son of Joash would regain territory lost to the enemy (see Kings II -14:25) and that’s what happened. However, he then prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jews repented so G-d cancelled the decree.
Great news, right?
Except that many Jews now considered Jonah to be a false prophet. Jonah realized that the people of Nineveh would also repent and his prophecy about their destruction would be annulled as well. This time the whole world would accuse him of being a false prophet. (If you are wondering why the Midrash inserted these seemingly negative details it’s because as great as Jonah was, he was still subject to human frailties. In the Torah there’s no spin, no whitewashing, no one gets a free pass).
However, Jonah’s primary motivation to flee was not to save his reputation. He felt that the people of Nineveh would easily embrace mass repentance and this would not bode well for the Jews. He made his assessment based on the fact that King Sancheriv of Assyria did something extraordinary after his army was miraculously destroyed the night before an attack on Judea. According to the Midrash, he inquired why G-d loves the Jews. He was told about Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son for G-d. The king decided that he would go one step further than Abraham. He actually sacrificed his first born son who was being groomed as the heir apparent.
King Sancherev settled in Nineveh which, according to historians, was the capital of Assyria. (Some commentaries say that Jonah knew that Sancheriv would one day go to war against Israel and exile the Ten Tribes). So Jonah did exactly what a Prophet is not supposed to do. He made his own assessment and attempted to flee from G-d so the people of Nineveh would not have a chance to repent.
Coronavirus – a test or a message
So where does that leave us? People are reading all kinds of messages into the virus and many of them are quite wonderful. Spend more time at home and deepen your relationship with your family. Don’t make lavish weddings. Governments should put politics aside and promote policies to protect the health and welfare of their people.
These messages may all be true. Surely you heard other theories that sound far fetched. Perhaps the point of the Midrash is that you can’t point to any one of them and say “that’s it. That’s what G-d had in mind the whole time.”
On the other hand we should see this as a test. Are we looking after the elderly that are confined indoors. Can we be patient and loving to our children who are home (even if we would prefer that they were in school). Is our faith overriding the reports of doom and gloom?
Jonah went on to repent and fulfill his mission.
As for us, although we may not be able to read the billboard, let’s at least try to pass the many tests that will challenge us through these trying times.