Laughing in the Face of a Pandemic

Haman marching Mordechai through the streets of Shushan

A popular joke is circulating in Israel this week as nearly 100,000 Israelis are under quarantine due to the coronavirus (maybe more by the time of this publication). The jokes goes something like this:

“Almost the entire country is in quarantine. Who do you think will be busier in nine months? Midwives or divorce lawyers?”

Like any good joke there is a bit of painful truth in it – will our forced confinement with the people we love and care about most in the world (at least those that we are fortunate enough to share a home and or a city with) bring us closer together or drive us further apart?

It’s also a very Jewish response, a very Purim appropriate response as our tradition teaches and as the holiday of Purim which begins Monday night celebrates; Jews laugh in the face of danger.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow taught me this:

The dark villain Haman, the mythic tyrant from the Scroll of Esther is but a place holder for all the times that a tyrant, movement, or even natural force has risen against us at so many moments in our Jewish history, personifying the worst in human fear and hatred of the other. Waskow taught that in such moments we need to do what we’ve done for generations in the face of hateful danger – rise above with courage, humor, faith, strategic activism, and deep compassion. I would add only one more action – we also need to wash our hands!

We can joke and laugh; they are good coping mechanisms as our tradition teaches us. (So apparently is bulk purchasing of toilet paper if my experience at Costco this week is any indication).

The virus is deadly serious, particularly for our elders and those with pre-existing health conditions as we well know from the news. How serious? It’s hard to calculate, but the spread knows no borders of nations or socioeconomic status and as the infection rate increases exponentially so does the mortality rate and very soon we could be getting into some very large numbers.

We must remember, as we should never forget, that those numbers are somebody’s father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, brother, sister – this very likely will affect people that we know, people that we love.

Vikor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as Holocaust survivor taught, “human beings can endure any suffering if they can find meaning in it”.

The problem presented by the coronavirus is that it falls in a category of natural evils, like earthquakes, hurricanes and tornados that has long been a challenge for Jewish theologians.

Human evils we know what to do with; we can explain them as the corruption of free will; Hitler came from us not God. Gun violence is our fault not God’s. But what is the meaning of an earthquake, a tornado, a virus?

The fundamentalist would urge, perhaps while standing on a street corner with hand lettered sign reading, “Repent! The end is nigh.” that the virus is all part of a divine plan. I reject such rationalization as nonsense. The virus is no more a punishment for the sins of humanity than AIDS was seen in its day, or racial integration was in its day.

But then if it is not a punishment from God; why can’t God stop its spread? Why are are our prayers for health and healing going unanswered? Why pray to God if God can’t save us from natural disasters?

Jewish Philosopher and founder of the Reconstructionist Movement, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan (1881-1983) who wrote, “Evil is the part of the universe that has not been subdued by human beings and God. Since God is the power that makes for salvation, as humans find ways to subdue evils, like disease, God, through human beings, subdues more and more of the universe and, therefore, slowly conquers evil.”

Kaplan’s response is that human beings have been given immense power of reason, intellect and collaboration in order to subdue these naturally occurring events and conquer them.

The virus is a test, not of God but of us. Can we pull together to fight this and subdue it, or will we tear each other apart?

Which brings me to Purim. As the joke reminds us one of the great lessons of Purim is that Jews laughed in the face of danger. Once again, the eternal ‘they’ rose up with a dastardly plan to kill us and we outsmarted them, we used every ounce of our cunning, resilience, power and courage to turn the tables on Haman. He died and we survived, indeed we thrived.

Layehudim hayetah orah vesimkhah vesason vicar – Ken tihyeh lanu (Ester 8:16). The Jews of old had light, and happiness and joy and love — may it be so for us!

There is a lesson about confronting the virus in this verse from Megilat Ester. The seemingly impossible IS possible. Esther & Mordechai stopped at nothing to avert disaster; they pulled out all the stops, left nothing on the table.

In the Purim tale the only one to die was the wicked Haman. Sadly, that is already not the case for thousands around the globe and there will be more, much closer to home. But can we imagine the abundant joy we will feel if/when we beat back this latest attempt to destroy us. When the people of he world pull together to do the seemingly impossible, to make our own miracles of human design.

Perhaps Purim comes that this time of year to remind us that we have faced the longest odds before, and we have come out the victor time and time again. Hamen is dead, Amelak is dead, Hitler is dead; but we are still here. Ken tihyeh lanu – may it be so for us.

This morning I read Rabbi Reuven Fink’s beautiful letter to his congregation in Long Island sharing the news that he had contracted the Coronavirus and was thus undergoing self-quarantine.

Toward the end of his letter he teaches all of us a little torah. Quoting directly from his letter to his congregation, Rabbi Fink explains the passage of Talmud he read that morning as part of Daf Yomi:

“The Talmud is in the midst of discussing various seminal events in the life of King David. It tells of an error he made. He decided to conduct a census of his kingdom. He wanted to have an accurate count of Israel’s population.

According to the Torah, a census can only take place by counting tokens that represent a person but not by counting the people themselves.

The Torah says: Count half-shekels so there “will not be a pestilence when you count the people.”

King David ignored this rule and counted people one by one. The prophets tells us that a plague commenced as a result. The strange occurrence that guided that plague was that exactly 100 people died per day. The prophets and sages of that era ascertained from heaven that if they would institute a new mitzvah, the plague would end.”

And it is from this instance that the rabbinic mitzvah to recite 100 brachot or blessings each day was established.”

Rabbi Fink continued: “Could it be only a coincidence that we learn this portion in the Talmud specifically today during this crisis of a possible pandemic? Perhaps. But perhaps we can take a lesson from it?”

Why was there a plague in the time of King David? Because, he treated people like numbers not human souls. Why was there a plague? Because he ignored God’s commandment to not bring the people in close proximity to each other on such a massive scale that they would all spread virus and disease.

From this we learn, that every human being has value, those numbers we see on the TV screen are not statistics they are the precious loved ones of somebody, even if they look different from us, speak a different language than us, come from or live in a different country than us.

We also learn the biblical lesson of appropriate social distancing when there is a concern for transmission of a contagion. Human beings have been helping each other stay healthy by putting the greater good over individual self-interest for thousands of years; and over that same period, we have also ignored that advice with deadly consequences.

How did they stop the plague in the times of King David? They replaced each death with an act of blessing, an act of gimilut hessed a deed of loving kindness. That in itself may not bring about a cure, I am counting on medicine not miracles. But it will make the next period, however long and how ever difficult it may be more bearable. Remember when we talk about healing in Judaism we prayer for a r’fuat hanefesh v’ r’fuat hagoof – a healing of body AND soul.

Through those acts of hesed like sharing our resources (yes even the toilet paper), caring for each other, they will heal and bring joy to our soul.

The Israelis joke – will it be divorce lawyers or midwives that will see an uptick in business nine months from now?

We control very little in the face of this virus, but we can control how we treat each other. I’m rooting for the midwives! Ken tihyeh lanu – may it be so for us!

About the Author
Rabbi Dan Moskovitz is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Sholom in Vancouver BC Canada. A URJ Affiliated congregation.
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