Covid? Don’t Despair!


Friends, we are living under conditions that we have never experienced before. It is not a Holocaust of course. But it is akin to the Black Death and the Spanish Flu. We may not face the same number of fatalities as then, because medicine, circumstances, facilities, and governments, imperfect as they are, are far better prepared and able to react than they once were. But it is scary, unpredictable and at this moment we do not know how long it will last for. We have always had plagues. In the past it might have taken a whole generation to recover. If this one does not last that long, it is cold comfort when faced with the present insecurity and the unknown.

There will be a huge loss of jobs, income, and shortages that could lead to riots in the streets and martial law. Companies and businesses will shut down, many will collapse. Schools have closed. Parents who have a job, cannot go to work because they need to say at home to look after their children. If governments are forced to print money without restraint, to cope with destitution and starvation, inflation will destroy pensions, savings and fortunes. A collapse in the financial markets and a recession may take years to recover from.

Inevitably people are beginning to talk of the Apocalypse, Armageddon, the Messiah. Remember there are Jewish, Christian and Muslim messiahs. We have no idea which one it will be. We all think it is ours. Who knows they might form a coalition! But no Messiah came after catastrophes in the past. We would be naïve to think it will happen now. All this non-rational talk only increases insecurity and panic.

Being careful, avoiding other people, quarantining ourselves is essential. No one can afford to ignore instructions. The Law of the Land takes priority over religious ceremonies even if some hidebound, religious authorities seem to think they can rely on miracles.

From a religious point of view, I don’t think there ever was a time in the free world when synagogues were shut down (other than for fear of anti-Semitism). But that has not had a deleterious impact on my religious life. We could always pray at home. Those who lead religious lives have daily patterns of spiritual resources and activities that help maintain their faith and rhythms of life.

But in the way religion has developed in recent times for most people, it is a far bigger problem now than it once was. Throughout our history, religion was based primarily on homes and families. It is true that three and two thousand years ago we went to the Temple when we could, perhaps several times a year. More often than not war prevented it. There were indeed huge synagogues in Alexandria, Rome, and Mesopotamia. And academies in Babylon, the land of Israel and Italy. Where study was as important as prayer. But most Jews lived outside the main hubs. They had to be self-sufficient. Many couldn’t, and they just disappeared.

Nowadays the vast majority of Jews “take out their religion” only when they visit synagogues. And they do so less and less often. Those who rely on rabbis and institutions for religious life, now are feeling deprived. Their only connection has been severed. Most do not have the tools to pray alone, to study alone or to find spiritual support and reassurance. Very few know how to take advantage of the ancient means of support and reassurance by connecting directly with God. Even substitutes, like counseling, meditation, exercise and support groups are increasingly dependent on others.

For those who live a life according to Jewish Law, not that much will change. We will pray at home if we cannot get to a synagogue. We will eat together as a family and say our blessings and sing our songs. We will keep Shabbat and festivals as days when we will not rely on technology for entertainment, but rather on conversation, personal interaction, playing and walking with our families.  And we will study together and learn.

There is no doubt we need communities and the dramatic effect that this is having on communal life is catastrophic. But as with everything there is a silver lining. New technology enables us to attend services online, even say kaddish online, to study online, to communicate and to use Zoom or Skype or Face time to talk to family and friends and keep in touch. But even that could end if electricity generation were to collapse, as it could.

Actually, this crisis is a wonderful opportunity to reset our religious habits. To start creating a new model of religious life based more on the home than the synagogue for those who have not yet done so. To fix times to pray or meditate for a few moments three times a day as individuals. To pray together as a family. Not the whole service necessarily. Perhaps just the Shema and the Amidah. To study in any language a page of the Torah every day or go through the weekly portion. And to spend more of Shabbat eating together, talking, discussing. Not just on Friday night. This disaster can make us stronger as individuals and as a people. All trials test us to see if we grow or shrink.

There is another abstract dimension to a disaster.  When things go wrong we always  tend to ask, “Why is God doing this to us?’ Usually, it is about something personal. As if God were punishing us for something whether it affects us or those we love.

All our lives we have to deal with loss, sickness, invalidity, accidents, and tragedies. As well, of course, as all the joys. That is the world we live in. Diseases are everywhere, all the time. The Bible says after Noah’s Flood  ( Genesis 8.22) “ the cycle of sowing and harvesting, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” The world functions according to the system and rhythm its creation made it. Regardless of the behavior of human beings.

Earthquakes, tornadoes happen not because someone does something wrong but because they, like cold and heat, rain and drought are natural phenomena of our world that God created. We humans are remarkable organisms with billions of microbes bacteria viruses and parts that go wrong sometimes, attack each other, but also protect and cure.

If we look at our bodies through a microscope, we see millions of seething, fighting, swirling minute cells constantly working to defend, attack, strengthen and weaken our bodies. It is hardly surprising that sometimes the bad guys win. But even the bad guys have benefits. Viruses can shape our DNA according to Dr. Neil Shubin Professor of Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago. The body often regenerates ad recovers. We decay and we age. Or as Doctor Lester Gottesman put it to me  “A lot of the cellular machinery, like mitochondria which fuel the cells, are bacterial in origin. So sharing code with a virus is nothing new. Evolutionary comingling allows pieces of DNA incorporated from all life forms. In fact, we have only 2% of useful DNA while 98 % is junk data, which is DNA we have collected over time and don’t really use that much. “

That is how our world works. It might even be a kind of beneficial flushing out of its system or a warning that certain boundaries are being overstepped or transgressed between the animal world and the human world, or even overpopulation and overcrowding. Who knows? If everything comes from God then so does the flu and a spot on your nose. Have you ever heard of anyone saying extra psalms over a pimple?  To think that all the things we don’t like or harm us are punishments are nonsensical and naïve. If that were the case then how come even the most pious of communities are being attacked by the virus as much as the impious ones?

Prayer like repeated mantras will do what any meditation will do, distract you, relax you, calm you and make you feel less alone and abandoned. But will not get God to change how the world or our bodies work. But they do help. They give us courage, a sense that we are doing something proactive, a response to helplessness.

By Rabbi Jeremy Rosen