How the insights of Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik can illuminate a path for us in our COVID-19 reality
An individual’s “I” is the inner life of a person- the vital essence of one’s soul. In simple terms, it is an aspect of the Divine materialized and bequeathed to a being in the image of G-d. It is manifested in the thought, speech, and action of an individual. The realization and fulfillment of the “I” is the catalyst of G-d’s illumination in this world. As Rav Kook eloquently posits” “And when there is no “I”, there is no “He,” and all the more so there is no “You”. Meaning, when one discovers their “I”- their unique vitality, attributes, and purpose- they are connecting to the ultimate light that is G-d. Moreover, the comprehension of one’s intrinsic divinity and dignity within one’s self allows one to acknowledge and appreciate the same intrinsic divinity and dignity in one’s fellow.
However, introspection is often not first nature for many people. In addition to the inherent struggle of man to self-reflect – on both the good and on the bad – our generation has perverted the “I”. We have distorted the virtue of the “I”, neglecting the value, conforming to society’s perceptions or demands of ourselves, and extolling false deities- the distracting temptations that are money, sex, power, superficiality, etc. This is not an exclusively contemporary phenomenon but rather a repeating pattern of behavior. As Rav Kook writes, “Both we and our forefathers have sinned (Tehilliam 106:6). This hints at the sin of Adam HaRishon, who became alienated from his essence. He conformed to the opinion of the snake and thus lost himself. He could not clearly answer the question “Ayeka?” (Where are you?) [Bereishit 3:9] because he did not know himself, for he had lost his true “I”. He had bowed to a foreign god.”
This first subversion of the “I” hinders man’s relationship with the Divine; in turn the Divine withdraws from man’s perception. The subsequent, acute lack of spiritual awareness, e.g. the commitment to a divine mission and corresponding values and standards of behavior sets the scene for the deluge. It creates a reality of immorality, sexual impropriety, greed, chaos, and destruction. This cycle is evident in our own 21st century existence.
Recently, the global community has been overwhelmed with the whirlwind that is COVID-19. Hundreds of millions have been encouraged to social distance while many have found themselves in quarantine. Rav Soloveitchik suggests “Suffering occurs in the world in order to contribute something to man, in order that atonement be made for him, in order to redeem him from corruption, vulgarity, and depravity.” I firmly believe that we should lead by Soloveitchik’s conceptualization of suffering, for man to allow these recent events to” form and shape his character so that he will, thereby, reach a level of exaltedness not possible in a world bereft of suffering.” I encourage us to utilize this distinctive time-away from the noise, society, and distractions- to take reckoning of our “I”s.
This opportunity could not have been more apropos. This is relevant to a global context but in particular, to the polarizing current events that has characterized Israel for the past year. We have struggled maintaining our collective Israeli identity in this divisive and tumultuous political era. This reality is destructive not just to the fabric of our society but to our ultimate mission- Or L’Goyim; which the fulfilled by a unified and successfully operating Zionist enterprise. My optimism is that we will elevate our new COVID-19 circumstances to remedy our situation. To rediscover and explore our independent and unique thoughts, exceptional characteristics, and divine spark. G-d willing, to use this process to reclaim ourselves, our relationship with the divine, and ultimately with each other. Rav Kook champions this journey, writing, “Individuals must find themselves in themselves, and only after this one can find oneself in the world. The Community must find itself in itself, and only after this can it find itself in all of humanity. Humanity must find itself in itself, and only after this can it find itself in the entire world.”