Thomas Friedman has taken to writing about climate change in very basic terms: it is the consequence of biology, chemistry, and physics. The same is true of the COVID-19 pandemic. The novel coronavirus is a simple string of RNA that does one thing, and does it very well: it simply seeks to replicate. Human cells are highly susceptible to its processes, and the consequence of its flourishing is illness and death. It is completely impersonal; totally opportunistic; lethally secretive and surreptitious. It neither spares good guys nor afflicts the bad. In the end, to the virus, we are all just dinner.
So, where is God in this? God is surely present in the hands, hearts, and heads of the healthcare workers – doctors, nurses, aides, custodians, cleaners, pharmacists etc. – who are working tirelessly to heal the sick. But, they die, too.
God is there in the creative energies of teachers, clergy, friends, social workers, and others who are reaching out to care for those whose lives have been upended in quarantine. But, their energy flags. Their families need them, too. And, some die as well.
God is there in our collective capacity to hope, to remember that all things change, to “hold the pose” and hang in there. For now.
But, talking about God at all is also challenging. We have witnessed a century of genocides, the Shoah our most painful experience of them all. Where was God in this? How can we talk of God working in the world, being a part of history, when such cruelty continues around the globe, even in the midst of a pandemic? The failures of humans to prevent such violence and cruelty belies any claim that humans can, or are willing to, act in God’s stead. But, perhaps that is all we have.
And yet, is this really the only answer we can come up with? Is there no other way for us to think about, to know God in our lives? Could this collective disaster be another “theological” turning point, bringing some new sense of God’s presence to the Jewish (and larger) world?
What would come of our experiencing God as Havaya (HVYH, an anagram of God’s Name YHVH), Being, Life Itself? We would have to consider the possibility – the reality – that the coronavirus is a manifestation, an instantiation of God’s being in the world. If we are willing to find God in a beautiful sunset, in the awesome power of mountains, oceans, night-sky, or love, we may also have to find God in deadly viruses. But, then, in the same manner, we can find God in ourselves. We, too, are biological manifestations of Being, of Life Itself. We are not separate from the world of microbes or volcanoes, any more that we are independent from other people and their endeavors. We are all part of a large whole, a great Oneness, all unfolding together.
The difference is that we have consciousness. We can reflect on our lives, on our experiences, on our thoughts and feelings. Out of this awareness we have gained the capacity to change our environment, to preserve life (or prevent disease), to create art, to yearn for love. Ultimately, though, we are charged to apply our consciousness to recognizing and then realizing in action the Oneness of which we are part; to know directly and live intimately with the interdependence of all beings, all Being.
Cultivating such consciousness is not easy, but there are useful practices to support it. Contemplative practices – mindfulness meditation, prayer, Torah study – are available to us. They are foundational practices of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. And, they are geared to helping us to know, to experience, to be inspired by Havaya, God, Being Itself.
There are practical implications to this theological shift, to finding God in everything, to realizing that nothing is separate from God, to knowing God is unfolding in and through us. It can be a source of joy. It gives power and meaning to the classical spiritual experience of love and fear of God. It engenders the potential for a moment-to-moment awareness of responsibility and accountability. And, it can be consoling, as well: we realize that we are not the only agents in the world, acted upon as much (or sometimes more) than acting.
This awareness is known by many more of us today than before this pandemic. It has suddenly become clear how much we depend on others to make our lives work: housecleaners, child-care workers, teachers, grocery clerks, chefs and servers, garbagemen and call-center respondents, mail carriers and delivery people. Although many people have been able to work from home, so many more have not. Some of the latter have had to risk their lives traveling on public transportation, coming into contact with many more possible points of infection. And, so, so many have lost their work, and with it their income. Those with means have been generous, helping out as they can. But, it is now evident that philanthropy is not enough.
And, for the most part, even financial security is not enough. Because we are all connected. Even the wealthy are dependent on someone to grow food, ship it to market, package and provide it. Even the wealthy are dependent on plumbers and electricians, on garment workers and mechanics, on sanitation workers and physicians. Financial security offers a false sense of self-sufficiency; we are all dependent on one another.
Thus, we will all be asked to live out interdependence in its fullness. Internalizing this theological orientation deeply might lead us to reconsider how we organize the Jewish community. Gathering for worship and study, to educate children and deepen Jewish culture will continue to be part of synagogue and communal life. But we will return with greater vigor toward our ethical and social mission, putting greater effort into looking beyond those who are like us to truly see those who are hidden from us, who “serve” us, on whom we depend. Once we see that they are not separate from us – due to class, language, religion, race, gender, etc. – we will seek their good with them. We will sense their pain and seek to ease it – not by “helping” or by making a donation, but by working side-by-side to change the givens of our society. To truly honor teachers and child-care workers, migrant workers and dishwashers, gardeners and EMT workers, nurses and nurses’ aides, we will work to organize our society and economy such that everyone has the wherewithal to support themselves in dignity, in health, and happiness. We will live out the awareness that our happiness and wellbeing are interconnected with and inseparable from the happiness and wellbeing of all others; we will know and experience the truth that the oppression of others leads to our own oppression and suffering.
This pandemic has made our interdependence, and our dependence more evident. It has revealed our true vulnerability; we understand that money can’t overcome mortality. It has reminded us that we are part of the natural world, and subject to its rules. We can celebrate this awareness, experiencing it as an invitation from God to become one with the Oneness. We can use our human capacities to change our society for the sake of more life, of more love, of more equity. It may be that despite – or perhaps because – of our suffering we can once again feel the spiritual power of our Jewish teachings. It may be that we will know intimately, and live with full understanding, the words of the Shema: HVYH is One.