Reacting to the Coronavirus Mageifoh

The coronavirus pandemic has tested us in ways we never could have imagined. We search for explanations, for what COVID-19’s divine message might be, and how this extremely trying situation fits into Hashem’s grand scheme of things—all while hunkered down, locked out of our yeshivos and shuls, and tearfully davening for the countless cholim and agonizing over the numerous petiros, r”l.

How are we to digest this all? It seems overwhelming and confusing, and the quick solutions so often seem to not be the dvar Hashem, lacking emes. But as frum Jews, let us go to the mekoros and try to properly orient ourselves and establish an authentic Torah perspective.

The Rambam writes in Hilchos Ta’aniyos (1:1-3):

It is a mitzvas aseh in the Torah to cry out and sound the chatzotzros on every tzoroh that comes upon the tzibbur… And this is from the ways of teshuvah—that when a tzoroh comes and people cry out and sound [the chatzotzros], everyone will know that it is due to their negative actions that evil has befallen them…

And this will help cause the tzoroh to be removed from upon them. But if the people do not cry out and sound [the chatzotzros], but they instead say, “It is merely part of how the world operates that this has come upon us, and it just happened by chance,” this is the way of cruelty, and will cause the people to retain their evil ways, and additional tzaros will therefore come…

Interestingly, the Rambam does not state that the tzoroh must have resulted from a singular aveiroh which needs to be called out; the Rambam instead refers to “negative actions,” a plurality of “ma’aseihem horo’im” and not a “maaseh ro.”

What emerges is that there might not be a uniform cause for a mageifoh; rather, each individual must engage in teshuvah and introspection, and determine what he needs to correct in his own life. The idea of pointing to a singular aveiroh of which everyone is guilty is absent from the words of the Rambam, and short of a novi or a person blessed with ruach hakodesh, who can make such a declaration? There might be a multitude of various wrongdoings that brought about the crisis.

We must also keep in mind that Hashem can bring yissurin shel ahavoh upon total tzaddikim (Berachos 5a), who are free of aveiros. And let us not forget how Hashem condemned Iyov’s friends for suggesting that his suffering was due to transgression on his part. These concepts reinforce the idea that it is not the job of people to point to their peers’ afflictions as punishments for their actions; each person must evaluate his own deeds and determine for which acts he needs to do teshuvah.

How different is this from the words of modern-day, unlearned pontificators, who seek quick, one-size-fits-all reasons for calamities, thereby leaving a trail of confusion in their path, as people listen incredulously and often walk away with mistrust and cynicism.

There is also the popular (and well-intentioned) tendency to attribute calamities to bi’as haMoshiach. Halevai that we are in the time of Moshiach—it cannot come soon enough—but the Rambam (Hilchos Melochim 12:2) clearly cautions us not to engage in predictions about the coming of Moshiach or even to try to figure out how the Messianic era will unfold. Not only does intense focus on this not engender yiras shomayim or ahavas Hashem, as the Rambam writes, but it also results in mass disillusionment and worse when the suggested interpretations and predictions turn out to be wrong—we have witnessed this throughout Jewish history.

(And let us not forget the words of Rav Shach, who equated people’s attributing the Yom Kippur War to the onset of bi’as haMoshiach as a manifestation of the middoh of Amalek, by such people ascribing suffering to outside forces rather than taking a look at our own deeds.)

Contemporary prognosticators, who would have us believe that every single unusual event, including the outbreak of COVID-19, signals that Moshiach is here, are doing a colossal disservice to klal Yisroel and would be wise to follow the words of the Rambam and be mindful of the exhortation of Rav Shach. Hashem will let us know when Moshiach is here, and we daven that it will be as soon as possible—but until that point, let us focus on our avodah, and examine and correct our paths as needed.

The devastating phenomenon of COVID-19 gives rise to some additional thoughts:

The “Derech Hateva” Illusion

The massive tragedy that is coronavirus has humbled us. When COVID-19 first reached these shores, some people confidently advised young people to disregard it, because in China, the disease primarily impacted the elderly. Derech hateva was the name of the game—we can outsmart the mageifoh, as it is part of nature, which we can predict and try to control. (As NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared, “We control the virus. The virus doesn’t control us.”) We then shockingly witnessed the mageifoh ferociously fell many young, healthy people, including outstanding bnei Torah and leaders of our kehillos and mosdos. We dare not play the derech hateva card and forsake the derech Hashem.

Teva has a role, of course. Hakodosh Boruch Hu set up fixed, perpetual systems and mechanisms upon which we must rely—but when we deal with a mageifoh as if it is something we can self-assuredly outmaneuver as a facet of teva, rather than as a divinely-decreed phenomenon and aberration in the natural order, we are sorely mistaken and are going the way of the secularists.

Proper Use of Time—A Most Precious Gift!

Although my “day job” (which often occupies me late into the night, as is the case with many people) has kept me incredibly busy during the coronavirus lockdown, many people now find themselves with loads of excess time on their hands. Some individuals have used the time to stare at the walls, at their screens, at their bottles of liquor, which they then liberally enjoy… while some have spent this “extra” time productively, learning Torah and helping others.

For those who have little constructive to do, aimlessly drudging through the day, time is an enemy that needs to be killed—“killing time.” For those who use their time well, it is a precious gift from Hashem that dare not be wasted or squandered; for such people, there is not enough time in the day, even during the lockdown, to squeeze in all the good that one can accomplish. The current coronavirus quarantine has made this realization glaringly acute and has frontally challenged us to evaluate how we use and value our time.

Appreciating the “Normal”

How often do we complain about our routines—the commute to work, the quality of the restaurants we frequent, and our various social obligations and errands to run. But now, if only we could do these things! We take our routines for granted, but now that we are frozen in place, we long for the ability to go out for a slice of pizza—even at a less-preferable eatery—or to be able to host company at our Shabbos and Yom Tov tables… and more.

The very fact that we can walk, breathe, learn Torah, perform mitzvos, and just be alive should instill us with immense appreciation to Hashem, especially as we agonize over those who have perished. Let us ever gratefully thank Hashem for the mere “basics,” never take anything for granted, and realize that there are so many people who do not have these things, even without the COVID-19 situation.

Davening

As much as we long to enter our botei medrash and shuls, saddened as these holy edifices sit empty and dormant, we have at last been forced to come to terms with our own davening. We can no longer mindlessly rush through the words, justifying it as necessary to keep up with the minyan/get out in time for work/whatever else; we now stand before Hashem, with nowhere else to go, no tzibbur to regulate our pace, and no one crowding into the seats next to us, which might disturb our kavonoh.

We are in the literal presence of the Ultimate King, the Creator and Controller, with our siddur open and all the time in the world to daven properly and beseech our benevolent and loving Father and Boss. This is an opportunity and a test, which demonstrates whether our davening is for real, or is an empty act. Let us make sure it is the former!

Fidelity to Halacha

Although I do not have the time to follow them closely, I am a member of email and text groups of rabbonim who are sharing and answering unique shailos that arise under the very trying circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic: how to do taharah and kevurah for niftorim, kashrus guidelines for people who could not access certain foods for Pesach, how to operate mikvaos and perform brissim under severe limitations, shailos about cholim and elderly people who were alone for Yom Tov, etc. For each shailah, a cogent teshuvah was presented by poskim, who upheld halachic standards and dispensed only with things that are not essential, due to the exigencies. This is the derech of psak in sha’as hadchak, as is the case now.

In contrast, some maverick left-wing and Open Orthodox clergy have used the COVID-19 crisis as justification to further depart from halacha. For example, one Open Orthodox leader advertised that he would this year turn electricity on and off during Yom Tov Sheni of Pesach, and he suggested that others do the same. One left-wing Israeli rabbi advocated the use of bathtubs instead of mikvaos, another such rabbi supported performing cremation instead of burial, calling cremation “a mitzvah,” and others advocated for conducting “Zoom Sedarim”—live video-streaming of one’s Sedorim and inviting relatives to tune in to these Sedarim on their computer on Pesach (!).

This is all totally against halacha—some of these rabbis later said that they were misunderstood or misquoted—but the fact remains that these very problematic “psakim” went public and in many cases were actually followed. In challenging times, one can rise to the occasion and be moser nefesh for Torah, or he can show his true colors. The current situation has confirmed this axiom.

“Out-of-Touch” People

We all know ehrliche Yidden who are out of touch with what is happening, both regarding the frum velt and the world in general. Although one should not be addicted to the news, and it is meritorious to be a poreish—insulating oneself from the frivolities of the times and avoiding that which is not necessary—we are speaking about people who do not stay current with essential developments and could be described as living in a bubble.

These individuals might not open their mail/read their emails in a timely manner, not look at important notices posted in shul, not stay abreast of current events, be unaware of basic communal happenings and obligations, and be unaware of recent simchos (or chas v’sholom, the opposite) in their neighborhoods. We all know such people, and we often notify them of these very basic things, so that they are at least minimally informed and able to navigate through life and society.

The COVID-19 outbreak should serve as a warning signal to “out-of-touch” people, who in some cases had no idea of the dangers of close mingling with others and were oblivious to the restrictions that were promulgated by the rabbonim and the government—important basics that were broadcast everywhere. The coronavirus should likewise inspire the rest of us to do our best to persuade our brethren who are detached and disconnected from the norm to change their ways for their own wellbeing, in a literal sense. This is yet another unexpected lesson learned from the current circumstances.

Becoming Baalei Achrayus

There are many grown people—some of whom are grandparents, or are at least old enough to be—yet they have never really prepared for Pesach, leaving it up to their parents (or hotels), who host them for the entire Yom Tov. Bedikas Chometz, kashering a kitchen and running a Seder are almost foreign concepts to these people. This year, everything changed, as our brethren of all ages prepared their homes for Pesach and conducted their own Sedarim. Despite the negative circumstances during which this occurred, it compelled people to take achrayus and lead, and it is something to seriously think about.

Empathy

We are often asked to daven for cholim; they are frequently people we do not know, and can become mere “names,” with little personal connection or significance. During the coronavirus outbreak, just about every single one of us knew individuals who were in the throes of death or who were niftar. It really hit home—we davened fervently for so many cholim to whom we were close, and personally experienced their suffering.

Let us move forward and continue to empathize with each person for whom we daven, cry for their suffering and, with Hashem’s help, be able to rejoice in their recovery. We must become people of personal empathy and authentic, heartfelt concern for every single member of Acheinu Beis Yisroel.

We daven to Hakodosh Boruch Hu for rachamim, refuos, yeshuos and besoros tovos, and that we properly learn the lessons of this very difficult period in our lives.