COVID numbers here in South Africa hit rock-bottom this week. Monday’s countrywide infection numbers totaled what the Jewish community’s numbers had been during our recent third wave. Despite that, an entire grade at a local Jewish day school spent the week isolated after a few students tested positive following a party. Now the parents are on edge. Curfew restrictions have eased, so the kids want to hang out. Numbers may be way down, but teens are as yet unvaccinated. Parents are torn between allowing their kids to live and worrying that they’ll get the virus.
Our Johannesburg lock-down or open-up dilemma is representative of a global challenge. Last year, as the virus tore through our communities and we had no medical safeguards, we had to hunker down to stay safe. Almost all adult South African Jews are now vaccinated. 90% of the people we interact with are safe. But, the perennial Jewish angst kicks in and has us worry about the outside chance that someone may fall ill.
I’m no doctor, and you must confer with yours before making medical decisions. But, if we’re going to wait for 0 COVID cases before we live again, we have a long wait ahead.
If we should have learned anything from the COVID “black swan”, it’s that we’re not in control. In early 2019, when everyone gaped in surprise as the world shut down, the buzz phrase was “we are not in control”. The universal humility was inspiring, and many of us hoped that it would last.
Instead, it seems that many individuals and the leadership of dozens of countries now crave control. Governments want to micromanage private lives, while we want to ensure our family’s health, financial stability and sanity.
300 years ago, people had less expectation of control. If you were a subsistence farmer, you ploughed your field, planted seeds and hoped. In the Talmudic vernacular, a farmer was one who “trusted in the source of all life and planted”. You knew that you had zero control over rain. You had no expectation that you could predetermine the size of your yield. You did your part and trusted G-d to bless it with success.
Technology has given us the illusion (or, perhaps delusion) of control. You can Google next Sunday’s weather to confirm your picnic plans. Economists can tell you which investments will produce the best returns. If you have your scopes and scans, you’ll avoid dread diseases. You can click a button and have a meal at your door within the hour.
None of that tech helped us last March. Now we’ve had to confront the possibility of losing our grip. Some of us welcomed the reset and reminder that G-d is large and in charge. Others were rattled and are now scrambling to stabilise the joystick of their lives.
And I’m thinking of young Abraham standing amongst the pottery shards in his father’s idol shop. You’ve heard the Midrash. Abraham’s father leaves him to mind his Idols-R-Us franchise for a few hours and returns to find smashed gods everywhere. Abraham explains that the statues had wrestled over an offering dropped off by a local worshipper. Only the bulkiest idol had survived the punch-up.It was brilliant theatre- and a compelling argument against paganism.
Like every Torah story, it’s also intended as a lesson for the ages.
If you think about it, idolatry is absurd. A deity is meant to control Nature, Destiny and Life, so how can a human craft one. Abraham’s novel philosophy of monotheism challenged the idea that people could control the elements that dictate life. In Mesopotamia, that meant smashing effigies. Today, it would translate into shattering the expectation that humans can devise systems or invent technologies that will make life controllable- or at least predictable.
G-d’s first directive to Abraham was “leave everything you know and go to the place that I will show you.” Yes, some of us enjoy surprises. Few of us would welcome leaving everything familiar to venture into the unknown.
Abraham’s first journey becomes the journey of the believer. We never know where the journey leads. We acknowledge that we control only how we respond; none of what we need to respond to.
When I’m on a plane, and the pilot asks the crew to “arm all doors and crosscheck”, I relax completely. I’ve done my part to plan the trip, buy the ticket, get to the airport on time and order a kosher meal. Now, I’m in the pilot’s hands, I have nowhere to go, and my phone is off. Peace.
In COVID times, as many rush to regain control, Abraham’s story- which is our collective story- reminds us, “Life’s a journey, trust the Pilot”.