Where is God in all this?

It’s easy — oh, so easy — to say that God has had His hand in all of this, but (unfortunately) we simply don’t know His Plan as it’s way beyond our understanding. And, thus, it follows, we can’t comprehend God’s reason – and surely there is one – for Novel COVID-19.

Indeed, that’s where the resolute have typically ended up when considering the Holocaust, the Black Plague, the Rwanda Genocide, the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, the Haiti Earthquake, the Crusades, Hurricane Katrina, and the like, as if they are in any way alike. It’s too easy to explain (or justify) these horrible tragedies by implying that God has had an active role in each of them but somehow choosing to believe that there is ultimate “good” or righteousness in God’s Plan.

Maybe God is simply a Malthusian economist who sees it necessary to periodically increase the death rate of mankind as a positive check intended to keep the world’s population within its resource limits. Perhaps God is a harsh martinet – as sometimes does seem to be the case – who periodically must punish mankind in groups for the sins of some of it. Or maybe God just sees occasional human suffering as a beneficial means to make mankind stronger, or stronger believers in Him? Wasn’t that, after all, the true purpose of the Ten Plagues?

These possibilities, articulated here in anthropomorphic terms (that might be unfair to God), might explain the actions of an All Powerful God, as well as might any possible alternative. But then, again, the pandemic which is an enigma beyond human ken, may be a part of God’s Divine (or celestial) Plan – as the resolute might rightly say. Perhaps God is there and truly participative, but His decisions are simply not for us to conjure. Maybe He prefers that we embrace the mystery.  He may also intend that it is not ours to know. In either case, the firm believer seems to hold that it is all an “act of God” – God declining relief for these earthshaking events as if a force majeure clause were in effect warning mankind that it is on its own.

But why do we feel the need to believe that God is truly an active participant in all of these tragedies? Why, for example, is the negative aspect of climate change necessarily dependent upon a deliberate act by God, rather than the natural flow of events or the cosmos initiated when God created the world (or world order), however he created it?  Why, too, do we insist that God has had an actuating role whenever “the good die young” or the bad live long?

Is it because we simply can’t accept God effectively telling mankind when the pivotal “week” of Creation was concluded so long ago: “Here it is. The rest is up to you. All best, God”?  Put otherwise, why can’t we accept God as The Grand Architect who completed His grand design at the dawn of time, and then -as a critical aspect of that design – gifted it to the humankind that He created. (Norman Mailer alternatively, but curiously, referred to God as “God the Artist” (On God, Mailer, N., Random House, 2007)).

Now, there is indeed Biblical authority for the proposition that God will turn away from man when man has broken its covenant with God and strayed toward the gods of foreigners: “My anger will flare against it on that day and I will forsake them; and I will conceal My face from them and they will become prey, and many evils and distresses will encounter it. It will say on that day, ‘Is it not because My God is not in my midst that these evils have come upon me?’” (Deuteronomy 31: 16-18).

God, in Deuteronomy, specifically says that He will, as He predicted after Sinai, turn his back on man – He will, using an alternative phrase, “conceal My face” (Hester Panim) – when man somehow turns to other gods. But does that mean that each time a mass calamity confronts the world it’s because God turned His face because we broke His covenant? Has COVID-19 been visited upon us because of idol worship on the part of mankind? If we were to conclude that is so, it seems (does it not?) a case where we take God’s Word and employ it across the board to rationalize God’s decision to do nothing helpful when the world seems in disarray. Or, in fact, that He has affirmatively decided that the world should be in disarray, for whatever reason best (and only) known to Him.

As Rabbi David Wolpe so elegantly put it in “Hester Panim in Modern Jewish Thought,” Modern Judaism (Oxford University Press, 1997), “The eclipse of God is a metaphor and as such, is automatically inadequate. Metaphorical language is intrinsically suspect when it comes to theology.”  Theodicy – the vindication of Divine Goodness and Providence in the face of the existence of evil – may, at bottom, simply be an effort to comfort us.  It does so by telling us that somehow “there is good in all this bad” and we (i.e., not necessarily you and me, but humankind) will come to know it, if only in the World To Come. And, one must admit that it is, in fact, extremely comforting for those who seek out a rationale for what is occurring.

But can’t we find equal or even greater comfort in something entirely different: that God created the world and, consistent with our adhering to His dictates, left it to us alone to try to make it all better? Yes, He will punish us from time to time, maybe for not doing a better job of it. Still, He has indeed given us the capacity to cure the world and save it from the evils that befall it (“Tikkun Olam”), even in the face of the sometimes fatal evil that confronts us now.

Maybe, finally, it’s a test. And maybe God, indeed, has turned His face away from us wanting to see what we ourselves will do with what confronts us now – hoping to find, maybe anticipating, that He taught His children well.

So, children of God: be safe and healthy, and do what you can and must to help stem the tide of the current evil that abounds.  And maybe, just maybe, His hoping that we will do precisely what He would want us to do is exactly where God is in all of this.

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” Dale J. Degenshein assists in preparing the articles on this blog.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers.