The message of the coronavirus
Go, My people, enter your chambers, and close your door; hide for but a moment until the wrath passes.” – Yeshayahu 26:20
We are obviously deeply pained that more and more people are getting ill and that others have died. Every human being, Jew or gentile, is of infinite value and to lose even one of them is losing a whole world.
May those who are ill soon get better!
But for all those who will stay alive, and that will, with God’s help, be all of us, it is a wakeup call, we have not heard in ages.
And here’s the reason why:
What is happening to us is that we suddenly hear what Abraham Joshua Heschel called “a perpetual murmur from the waves beyond the shore,” which until now we didn’t hear. Not because it wasn’t there before, but because we have been deafened by the curse of taking our lives for granted. We tell ourselves that we’re fine, that we have almost everything under control, and that we’re close to becoming the masters of the Universe. One more step, a bit more patience, and we’ll be there: absolute certainty; absolute security; absolute health.
And now, to our utmost dread, we have fallen into the hands of one tiny virus that forces us to our knees, causing us not only to be aware that we’ve lost our certainty, but to realize that we never had it to begin with!
And this wake-up call is actually an enormous blessing, enabling us to become genuine realists. This tiny virus forces us to admit that our self-assured sense of health is a farce, and that our certainty of being able to breathe, walk, speak and think, come what may, is all wishful thinking.
Who, after all, gets out of their bed in the morning, immediately panic-stricken by the thought that their lungs may be on strike today and they will collapse on the spot? Who worries that the laws of nature may not be available today, or that the sun may not rise this morning? Is there anyone among us who gets anxious at breakfast when we eat our cornflakes, wondering if it will actually work, sustain us, and not create pandemonium in our digestive system?
Yet, not one scientist or philosopher can assure us that there are indeed such unquestionable laws of nature. After all, the only way we know about them is because of the frequency with which they have taken place in the past. But who says that this frequency will continue in the future? Perhaps it is all an illusion and nature consists of nothing more than miracles that are constantly repeated? As David Hume and other philosophers have shown us, it is not at all certain that the sun will rise again tomorrow simply because it happened for millions of years in the past. In fact, the opposite may be true. The longer it worked in the past, the greater the chance that it will break down in the future. So how do we know for sure that our ability to breathe will still be available to us tomorrow morning? One little virus and this certainty collapses in front of our very eyes.
How wise were the sages of Israel when they instituted the custom of making a blessing on almost anything, whether it is eating, drinking, observing natural phenomena, or smelling extravagant aromas. They depicted all these activities as nothing less than totally miraculous.
And how did they come up with the bizarre suggestion that we should say a blessing after we have relieved ourselves? Who would ever think of making a blessing on something as physical as that? Why honor something as animalistic as needing to use the restroom, by placing it before God and declaring that He “created in human beings openings and hollow spaces, and it is revealed and known before Your Throne of Honor that if [even] one of them would close, it would be impossible to survive and stand before You, even for a moment”?
For the sages, all this was totally wondrous. Nothing was taken for granted, and all was seen in the light of radical amazement. They walked through life with a constant “Wow” on their lips, and they wanted us to share in this uplifting experience when making a blessing. They knew that to take things for granted is to be spiritually dead. That to be alive is not just having the capacity to survive; it is to live in wonder and to experience it as sublime grandeur.
True, to live in quarantine for two weeks, (our grandparents lived for years in hiding in the days of the Holocaust!) stop kissing and shaking hands, be forced to cancel our plans for vacation, be unable to drink a cup of coffee in a restaurant, or visit a cinema, and be thrown into a nearly impossible situation of dealing with our young children while being unable to go to work, is far from a joke.
But is it not also something very special, which we never imagined? Suddenly we find ourselves on a new mental planet. We are forced to rethink our lives, develop a new mentality, and live a radically different kind of life that we never envisioned. It asks us to break with the monotony that most of us are used to. Almost all of us jump into routine every morning – whether it’s a job, or the need to sleep, eat, or entertain ourselves. And now, one little virus suddenly forces us to rethink everything, making us wonder what this life of ours is really all about.
This unforeseen interruption gives us the time to meditate on our lives, learn Torah, read books of wisdom we would otherwise never get to, and above all, to pray as we never did before.
Until now, we have refused to take notice of what is beyond our sight and what ends at the shore of that which is knowable. We have turned mysteries into dogmas and convinced ourselves that what is really extraordinary is in fact nothing but commonplace.
But now we are suddenly filled with solemn terror, with a feeling that our wisdom is inferior even to dust and that we are confronted with a situation that has thrown the entire world into chaos. We stand in terror and in awe, asking what will happen now. What is our future? And we are aware that nobody knows the answer, not even our greatest experts, and surely not our leaders.
All of this is in fact very liberating. It creates new space in our minds and souls and offers us opportunities that we forgot existed.
The mask has fallen, and reality has confronted us as never before.
What a marvelous opportunity to make a new start! We suddenly become aware that life is a gift that is unearned and it may be a little dangerous to feel too much at home in this world. We are offered the chance to make a distinction between the vital and the futile; the trivial and the important; what needs to inspire us (and we should cling to) and what to drop. We realize that we have the possibility to put our souls in quarantine so as to liberate them from everything that has nearly suffocated us. Then, we will no longer have to escape our true selves but can return to who we really are.
While we still have no clue as to what coronavirus will do to our world, our health, and our finances, we all recognize that something divine is at stake and we can be sure that we Jews will once again play a crucial role in dealing with this crisis.
So, what to do? Let me quote a colleague of mine, Rabbi Moss from Australia: “Close your eyes and feel the uncertainty and make peace with it. Embrace your cluelessness. Because in all confusion there is one thing you know for sure: you are in the hands of God.”
And let us not forget: once this trial is behind us and almost all of us will have escaped in good health, the greatest challenge will still await us. Will we fall back into our old ways, or will we be transformed and live a life of spiritual grandeur?
“The Lion has roared. Who will not fear?” (Amos 3:8).
Note: The series on the “Mei HaShiloach” will continue next week.