Parshat Vaetchanan contains two very familiar passages for most Jews – the Ten Commandments and the Shema. What do they have in common? Well, perhaps one could say, the first commandment “I am the Lord your God” and “the Lord our God, the Lord is One” are both instructing us about a key Jewish innovation – “Emunah” – loosely translated as “trust in God”.
According to the Rambam (Laws of Idolatry Chapter 1), idolatry started when mankind began to worship the stars as a proxy for God Himself, believing that they were worthy of respect and praise. After some generations, people began to believe that these objects, and others, were gods themselves.
Why did people ever even consider worshiping idols? Apparently out of fear. The world was full of unknowns (and still is). Will it rain this year? Will I have a decent harvest to feed my family? Will we be well this year, or God forbid fall to some plague? The Torah itself gives us a perfect example of this with the Golden Calf that was offered by the Jewish people when Moses did not come down from Mount Sinai in time, and they were scared to be without a leader in the midst of the desert.
In a world of uncertainty, mankind found some mental refuge in believing that by placating some deity, he could somehow control his destiny and the uncertainties that abound.
So what about “Emunah”? A religious skeptic might say that “trust in God” is exactly the same emotional reaction to fear. And yet, this is definitely not the case.
The human mind is naturally dualistic – we can see things in two lights – the light of “good” and the light of “bad”. In fact this is so ingrained that the “Aleinu” prayer, that we recite three times a day, refers to it. At the end of the prayer we state “On that day God will be One and known as One”. The Rabbis in the Talmud (Pesachim 50a) ask, “Isn’t God already One?!” And they answer that since today we make a different blessing on good news and on bad news, God does not appear to us as One. However, in the world to come, we will be able to recognize that everything is ultimately for the good and, hence, only “on that day” will God truly be One and known as One.
So that’s where “Emunah” comes in. Since we live “in this world” we have to trust that God is One which will only be obvious to us once we reach the “world to come”. And, therefore, “Emunah” is about believing that everything that happens, happens for the best, even though our natural inclination is to categorize it as either “good” or “bad”.
Now comes Corona.
The primeval fear of pandemic, drummed into us from endless media and social media graphics and videos, is driving mankind to idolatry.
However, the idolatry of today takes a different form to the idolatry of yesterday – after all, now we are “civilized”. If the idolatry of yesterday was putting our trust in a tree or a constellation, today we put our trust in newspaper editors and politicians. If the sacrifices of yesterday were cows and sheep, today the sacrifices are personal freedom and suspicion of others.
In an ancient pandemic people might be heard saying, “I have brought my offerings to the local god, I am surely less likely to be struck by the plague”.
In today’s pandemic one can frequently hear people saying, “I acquiesced to the government locking me in my home, tracking my phone and shutting down my place of worship and celebration – I am surely less likely to be struck by Corona”.
Today’s “civilized” humans might ask, “how did people ever trust in idols? After all, surely it was easy to check whether those who worshiped them succeeded more than those who did not?”. Well, apparently people in a state of fear don’t look at the facts. Today it is clear from the published data that all the government lock downs and restrictions have not achieved anything more than could be achieved by freedom and simple common sense.
A recent article (Bloomberg, July 28) states, “As other countries face renewed outbreaks, Sweden’s latest Covid-19 figures suggest it’s rapidly bringing the virus under control.”
Sweden, the bane of the Coronoid media. Sweden, the arrogant country that refused to lock down and bankrupt itself in the face of devastating loss of life. Sweden, the country that took away no citizen’s rights but depended on their common sense to isolate if necessary. Sweden, the country that is now facing no “second wave” because it has reached some level of natural immunity. Sweden, the outlier that is now recommending its citizens take off their self-imposed face masks as new cases of Corona are “approaching zero”.
We humans like our idols. We like to believe that by offering tangible sacrifices to a self selected deity we can control our uncertainty. When the facts of Corona always dictated that it was likely to behave like other flu outbreaks we have experienced in the past, just with a faster impact due to lack of built up immunity, mankind insisted on sacrificing itself to government controls and economic hardships, because that’s the sort of sacrifice we have made for millennia in the face of uncertainty.
And yet, the Torah comes along and teaches us, “God is One”. No more sacrifices are needed to prevent “bad” things happening. God is “good”, so a far better “sacrifice” would be to invest in better long term healthcare rather than bankrupting ourselves in order to feel that we have placated the deity.
With data demonstrating that this is just another “SARS”; with incredible doctors and nurses who are treating the sick; with hopeful scientists working rapidly on a cure – there is no need to sacrifice our freedom.
“Emunah” teaches us not to look for an idol when things don’t go how we plan, but to build on the good. Every challenge becomes an opportunity for us to improve.
The forces of idolatry want us to self-destruct. The One, true, God wants us to live, improve and to prosper.