An Upside-Down World and the coronavirus

An Upside-Down World and the CoronaVirus

  • Article by Rabbi Shlomo Simon

The world has been flipped on its head. Life as we knew it has changed. The plague known as the coronavirus has disrupted travel between countries, cities, towns, neighborhoods — and even between neighbors. The “shrinking world” is now expanding. Schools are closed, as are places of worship. Workplaces are in lockdown or on skeleton crews. Professional sports leagues have suspended their seasons. “Social distancing,” whether mandated by government or merely suggested, has become a fact of life. The world’s economy has been eviscerated. Neighbors, while no doubt caring about each other, are also often wary of each other. We have been forced to become hermits. None of us has experienced anything like this in our lifetimes. The closest comparison is probably the Bubonic Plagues, which periodically swept the world centuries ago. And since medical knowledge in those times wasn’t aware of germs and the communicability of disease, isolation wasn’t practiced.

We Jews have a very long history and a very long memory. We recount it daily in our prayers and celebrate its milestones in our holidays. The main lesson taught by this history is that nothing happens without it being the will of the Creator. He is always looking out for our good — even if it takes us a long time to recognize it.

So, what lesson can be derived from the present calamity? The obvious one is that Hashem is showing the world that He is in control. He introduced an “invisible enemy,” which mankind, for all its seeming domination of nature, lacks the tools to swiftly deal with. The expectation that our material life, based on our talents and value to society, will continue uninterrupted until we mess up, retire or die, is now gone. We now know that Hashem is the real source of our parnassa and well-being. As our Sages teach, “Everything is in the Hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven.” (Berachot 33b) The only thing under our control is what we choose to believe. This is the obvious lesson.

“Everything is in the Hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven.”

A less obvious lesson is “the power of one.” Each individual person has the ability to influence the entire world. To the best of our knowledge, this pandemic began in Wuhan, China, with one man eating a wild animal purchased in a “wet market,” where animals are sold alive for consumption. One of the seven commandments given to all mankind is to refrain from eating ever min hachai — the limb of a live animal. And although this was not the first time this prohibition has been breached, it may be the last. That “patient zero” in Wuhan contracted COVID-19, which had previously been found only in certain animals and had never passed to the species of Homo sapiens. Patient zero then passed it on to others — and now the entire world is besieged.

The same is true for the power of good. One person can change the entire world for the better — not only for his generation, but for all generations to come. The holiday of Purim celebrates our victory over our ruthless enemy, Haman the Amalekite. The Purim story, as told in Megillat Esther, unfolds over many years: from the feast of Achashverosh and Vashti to the victory over Haman, his sons and the innumerable hordes of anti-Semites in 127 countries that comprised the Persian and Medean kingdom. Mordechai, the leading rabbi of his generation, was a lonely voice in a sea of complacency and compliance with the empire that had exiled the Jewish People. He berated his fellow Jews, urging them to hold true to their G-d and not participate in the unholy celebration hosted by the king and queen. The royal feast was meant to show what the king viewed as the failure of the fulfillment of the prophecy that the Jews would return to their land and rebuild their Temple after 70 years of Babylonian exile. Mordechai knew their calculation to be incorrect, and his devotion to Hashem and his concern for the Jewish People was contagious. His purity of heart and devotion to Hashem entered the heart of every Jew, until they all did teshuva and were saved. His spiritual accomplishments live on within every Jew until today.

"Those “fanatics” changed the course of history and defeated one of the most powerful armies on earth."

The holiday of Chanukah celebrates the victory of the “few over the many.” The “few” wasn’t the Jewish People — it was the family of Matitiyahu, which consisted of thirteen men. The vast majority of the Jews were complacent, willing to enjoy the Greek culture while still keeping kosher and Shabbat. Those “fanatics” changed the course of history and defeated one of the most powerful armies on earth. But that wasn’t their crowning glory. It was that they persuaded their brethren to rededicate and purify themselves to Hashem as they rededicated the Holy Temple and cleansed it of its impurities. Their achievements live on within us.

We today have been given the opportunity to use the lessons of this pandemic to uplift the world by our teshuva and by our recognition of Hashem’s control of the world and His interest in our welfare. Each one of us has the power to infect the rest of the world with a "change of heart" needed to bring about the end of this plague, and to bring about our salvation with the coming of the mashiach!

As we approach the holiday of Pesach — the celebration of our progression from the slavery of Egypt to the freedom of our body and soul and our becoming a nation with the Torah as our Constitution — we should keep in mind the lessons that are taught by plagues. Hashem rained down on the Egyptians ten of them over the course of a year. If all He wanted to accomplish was to free the Jews from their bondage, He could have accomplished that in one fell swoop. But each plague brought with it a new and different lesson. Each plague showed Hashem’s absolute control over a different aspect of life. May we learn from this one modern-day plague, the coronavirus, that despite what we may have thought, we are not in control of the world. In reality, Hashem is in control and each one of us has the ability to convince the world of this Truth.