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The Eternal Question

As the corona pandemic hopefully wanes, and as we attempt to return to some sort of normalcy and emerge from our isolation, I have reflected on the fact that there is an enormous theological question raised by the events of the past few months.
This theological question has always existed and has always been discussed in Jewish life and by Jewish scholars.  But this question has never been answered to the complete satisfaction of all concerned and remains more in the realm of faith than it does regarding intellect or understanding.
The question certainly relates to this pandemic. What is God telling us here? What lesson are we supposed to learn from it, if any? And in fact, if I put it in its most radical form, is this a message from God at all or is this just part of the natural order of the world that the Lord created and sustains, and that viruses are part of this natural order? Human beings are supposed to deal with this natural order and that is where our freedom of will comes into play. But it is not clear that, so to speak, Heaven ordains our response, or even expects us to learn a lesson from the event itself.
There are two weak streams in the matter that have been propagated in Jewish thought from biblical times until today. We all know that somehow, as Maimonides has explained, there is to be a balance between the guidance of Heaven, so to speak, the pre-ordination of events, and between human free will and freedom of action. Where the fulcrum of this balance is to be located is a matter of debate and discussion. There are those who say that the vast majority, even 99% of events that occur to human beings and to this world are a direct result of God's will, and that there is really only a very small element to life that is left to human choice and the freedom of will.
At the opposite extreme there are those that say that almost everything is left to human choice and to freedom of will, but that there is an overriding guidance of human events in history, not specific to any event, that somehow propels civilization and historical developments.
Between these two extremes, there exists the vast realm of Jewish thought and philosophy that attempts somehow to deal with this question - a question which may never be answered satisfactorily by human beings. It is covered by the statement of the prophet, Isaiah, that, "My thoughts are not your thoughts and my ways are not your ways so that we will be left in an eternal, psychological and intellectual limbo as to how to judge great tragedies, great victories, and even everyday occurrences in life."
An article appeared in the Wall Street Journal, written by a rabbi, that said: "The coronavirus is not necessarily an expression of God's will." He took the position that viruses are part of the natural world, and according to the rabbi, it has already been stated in the Talmud that chills and fevers are not governed by heavenly will. He maintains therefore that human beings are responsible for the coronavirus and that there is negligence and malfeasance and all sorts of human frailties and weaknesses that caused it and that we should look to correct those weaknesses and not delve into the matter as to whether heaven or godly guidance is involved.
This is an extreme position. Though it does have roots in Jewish tradition, it is certainly not a popular position amongst Jews, especially in the Orthodox world. In our world we have voted heavily for heavenly guidance in even the smallest of matters. There have been numerous articles and lectures that have been delivered during this period of crisis that attempt to find the cause for this pandemic in the failings and excesses of human behavior.
This is a strong idea within the Jewish world and is pretty much the accepted version of things. The pandemic is used to point out all of our weaknesses, to chastise us for the pursuit of luxuries, for laziness, for violations of halacha, for inadequate prayer and for many other ills of Jewish society, all of which we know to be present. But they have always been present. There never has been a perfect Jewish society and human nature is human nature and cannot be easily changed even by pandemics. We see throughout the Bible that even great miracles performed on an unimagined scale are insufficient to really change human behavior. Our weaknesses are always present and have to be dealt with in human terms and not by Heavenly guidance.
So, this is the eternal question raised again. Why did this pandemic occur? Who was at fault? Is it an expression of God's displeasure with human behavior, as we can certainly say that there is plenty of room for displeasure at human behavior in our society? Or, perhaps it is a natural event brought about by the failings of human beings, but it is not necessarily a punishment from Heaven falling upon humanity.
In the Torah, we see that the flood at the time of Noah was an expression of Heavenly punishment and displeasure, but we also see that the Lord took an oath, so to speak, through the medium of the rainbow, that it would not happen again. We also see that the City of Sodom was destroyed because of its wickedness. The question arises and remains constant; what are we to learn from this? Is this an expression of the corona being the punishment for the behavior of the world in a Sodom fashion? Or is it a product of human negligence, ignorance, malevolence, and malfeasance?
This is an eternal question and the answers will be given by various scholars and the opinions will vary. But after all the discussion has ended, and I don't believe it ever will end, the question will remain pretty much in an unanswered form. The rabbi's taught us that many times the question itself is the main issue, that the answer, if any, is secondary. I don't think there will be an answer here that will satisfy the broad spectrum of the Jewish world's opinion, but I think the question is worth contemplating as we seek somehow to recover and advance and rebuild a better world than the world that preceded this corona epidemic.
Shabbat Shalom,
Berel Wein.


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