Micha Odenheimer

The Good in the Bad: Reflections on Pandemic Days

These days—pandemic days—are bad days. People are getting sick and dying, and its really bad that those already older or weaker are especially in danger, and so bad that instead of being able to hug each other and comfort each other, we must hunker down in isolation. The Talmud says “Friendship or Death”. Love and friendship is our life’s blood. Spiritually, we need more closeness, not social distancing. Its bad not to be together.

But bad is not necessarily all bad. The Book of Proverbs says “On a good day, be good, and on a bad day, see.” In other words, as Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav explains, if we look carefully into what is happening on a bad day, we will begin to see that there is good there too, that G-d’s teachings and G-d’s love are hidden within the bad days themselves. Days like these, pandemic days, roil our emotions like a storm upon the sea. But if we can find the calmness to look deeply, lessons hidden in the day will shine out at us, Rabbi Nachman says, and will reveal teachings which themselves are expressions of divine love.

What is the good within these bad days? So first of all, the whole world is truly in one boat. Just like in World War Z (that was about a Zombie attack) or countless films about the world uniting in the face of an enemy from outer space, viruses don’t distinguish between nationality, ethnicity, or race. We’re all together in this. Our prayers must be prayers for the whole world, and our vision of healing must include everyone. Yes, its possible to blame the Chinese—or the Jews—as some have. But as borders close, for most people, hearts have opened. The messianic vision of one world has, I believe, been brought forward a notch with the corona-inspired revelation of how completely all our fates are intertwined.

Second: In the 1960’s there was a Broadway play called “Stop the World I Wanna Get Off”. For a long time, it has seemed to many of us that the world has become too big, too complex, too massively intricately interconnected to ever “stop”. And yet there were good reasons to want the world to stop—to put the ongoing financial and political processes on hold, so that we could discuss the common good. In particular, the global market , driven by huge corporations and the need for constant growth, totally dependent on international trade, fossil fuels and a growing consumer class seemed like a powerful force of nature. Where was the lever that could make it slow down, give us time to think, to plan, to dream of a better world?

We needed to be able to put on the brakes. How could we think about what is good for humanity with a market spinning beyond our control? How would we ever be able to discuss how to revive the dying oceans, mitigate climate change, eliminate infectious disease, ascertain that everyone had enough good food to eat, regulate artificial intelligence, ensure that genetic engineering did not create monsters or caused new kinds of inequalities if the intertwined world of politics and global economics was moving like a powerful, independent, perpetual motion machine?

The corona virus has taught us that the world can stop—that when it comes to saving human lives, we are capable of shutting down the economy and our social lives in ways that would have been unimaginable just a few short weeks ago. I hate to lose money as much as the next guy, but isn’t it profoundly moving that the lives of the vulnerable mean so much to us that our governments have sacrificed trillions of dollars to save them? Closing borders, grounding flights, shutting down whole sectors of the world economy. For those of us who believe in markets, but also believe that the power of markets must be embedded in something bigger—in the search for the common good of humanity—this is big news. It remains to be seen how deeply this lesson will penetrate, but if we can stop so suddenly and completely for the coronavirus, doesn’t it mean that we can stop—or pirouette—in order to, together, accomplish any number of things? Tragic and nerve-wracking as it is, to me the coronavirus offers hope that we can learn to shape the global world we have created into a more just and beautiful world.

And perhaps our motivation to do so will also grow, after having seen how deeply we are all connected. Covid-19 came out of China, but Ebola emerged from Africa, and who knows where the next virus will originate? One of the great lessons for me in my work with Tevel b’Tzedek is the understanding that poverty is more about vulnerability than it is about day to day life. The problem with life in subsistence farming village in the Global South is not necessarily ongoing suffering—although of course there is no lack of that as well sometimes, along with joy and family and friendship—but the fact that without a safety net, without health care, one’s life can change in an instant, from happy or tolerable to unbearable. Its true that poor villagers or slum dwellers are more vulnerable than we are to the pandemic—they don’t have running water to wash their hands, nor will they have hospital care if they get sick. But its also true that we are all ultimately vulnerable. Can Covid 19 can help us understand that there is no longer a developed and developing world? That we are all part of one crazy and amazing world, all still developing, all of us aspiring, consciously or unconsciously, to achieve a human world where empathy and compassion are stronger than greed and lust for power? A world, not of social distancing, but of social solidarity? Where diseases such as malaria, and health threats such as malnutrition and lack of safe water will be taken as seriously as Covid-19? We are not free unless we are all free—isn’t that one of the pandemic’s lessons?

I bless all of us to look deeply into these bad days, to use them for reflection on the kind of world we want to see.

About the Author
Micha Odenheimer is a journalist, rabbi, and social entrepreneur. Micha founded the Israel Association or Ethiopian Jews, the first advocacy organization dedicated to changing absorption policies, and Tevel b'Tzedek, an Israeli organization working with impoverished subsistence farmers in the Global South. Micha has written for numerous publications, including Haaretz, the Washington Post, and the Jerusalem Report from Ethiopia, Somalia, Iraq, Burma, Bangladesh, Indonesia and other countries.
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