What the Coronavirus Might Teach Us

How we try to make sense of what is happening to us and around us depends on how we choose to connect the dots, the personal experiences of our journey. Two illustrations from Jewish tradition make the point: In the Joseph narrative (Genesis 37-50) no one ever informs Joseph that God is guiding his destiny through a series of ups-and-downs in his life, all with the purpose of saving the lives of many from famine. Joseph arrives at this momentous perception by relying exclusively on his powers of surveillance, intuition, and logic. Unlike the divine revelations to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, Joseph chooses to ‘see’ God’s guiding Hand. A very different scenario from the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 54b) relates that, following our best moral sense, a thief who steals should not profit from his ill-gotten gains. Yet, because “the world pursues its normal course” the thief may very well profit from his sin in this world.

Conclusion: Joseph chooses to see God’s Hidden Hand in what happens to him, whereas in the rabbinic case human decisions alone determine the outcome; the choice to be moral rests exclusively in human hands.

These two interpretations occupy my mind these days against the backdrop of the spread of the coronavirus. One of the remarkable ‘miracles’ of the pandemic is the coming together of all humanity to fight this hidden plague; the almost unanimous decision across the globe to refrain from fighting one another, so collectively we might better defeat this invisible plague.
So here’s a sober question: Should we decipher this pandemic as a cruel, yet invisible divine plea to mankind to undertake in earnest the necessary steps towards ‘repair of the world’ (select among the many problems in need of repair)? Or, does the pandemic belong more to the natural course of events brought about solely through human action and error (select among any number of human vices)? If we choose the latter option, then repair depends on mankind’s willingness and capacity to make the necessary mid-course corrections as ‘United Nations’.

Regardless of which belief option we choose it seems to me there is a silver lining among the clouds: at least for the moment, this plague reminds us how great our individual destinies are intertwined with the welfare of all humanity.

About the Author
I am a former dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary and retired faculty member at the Schechter Institute. Currently, I am a visiting professor Jewish studies at the Zecharias Frankel College at the School of Jewish Theology, University of Potsdam.
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