Coronavirus and prayer: Embracing the impact of the virus on all of us

One of the givens of Judaism is that God continually tests man, sending us challenges that can be emotionally, economically and physically daunting.

Border Police go about coronavirus inspections in Mea Shearim, a haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Border Police go about coronavirus inspections in Mea Shearim, a haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
As the coronavirus numbers decline and society reopens – please God, let there not be a second wave – we might take some time to reflect on the crisis we have shared since Purim.
It has been an extraordinary three months across the globe, with heartbreaking stories of suffering, death and economic hardship, along with untold acts of courage, heroism and hessed.
On a macro level, it is impossible to definitively declare a spiritual reason for this plague, for no one can truly know God’s mind; to claim otherwise would be hubris of the highest order.
True, some have boldly offered their opinions, as though they have a direct line with the Divine. An acknowledged leader of the haredi world, for example, stated that COVID-19 was sent to the world as a response to those who use their cellphones in synagogues. The punishment for this behavior, he asserted, is that Jews have been barred from praying together in minyanim, a “measure for measure” response commensurate with their deplorable sin.
Now, I certainly am no fan of cellphones in shul; there is nothing more rude, obnoxious and mood-destroying than having someone’s phone play the ringtone of “The Mexican Hat Dance” next to me as I say the silent devotion. But that is a far cry from stating that this is why a planetary pandemic has come to pass. I could just as easily posit that the real sin is that all too many synagogues in the haredi sector refuse, even upon request, to recite the prayer for the welfare of Israeli soldiers, who daily defend each and every Jew. But these pseudo-prophetic pronouncements are fanciful, frivolous and far-fetched.
What is constructive, however, is for each individual to consider his own personal situation and contemplate the impact corona has had on him, and what his response to it should be. Indeed, the Talmud (Bava Metzia 103) states explicitly that when misfortune strikes, “a person should carefully examine his deeds.”
THE ROAD to redemption – at least for the Jewish people – is often not an easy one to traverse. Many are the obstacles that often block our path, and the “toll” we sometimes have to pay can be steep. We have an amazing religion – well worth the struggle – but we are called upon to be ready and resilient at all times.
One of the givens of Judaism is that God continually tests man, sending us challenges that can be emotionally, economically and physically daunting. In fact, say the Rabbis, “the greater the person, the more severe the test he is given.” Just take a brief glimpse at our biblical heroes to see the truth in this.
Abraham, who underwent no less than 10 trials, was thrown into a fiery furnace for his belief in one God; he later would have to leave his homeland and family, as well as endure – not once, but twice! – the abduction of his wife.
His son Isaac would undergo the ordeal of the Akeda and would be traumatized by it for the rest of his life; Mother Sara, for her part, would die upon hearing of the event.
Jacob would face a lifelong series of crises, including a vicious, ongoing rivalry with his twin brother; the kidnapping and rape of his daughter, and the sale into slavery – by his own family! – of his most beloved son, Joseph (who himself is also tried greatly).
Moses, of course, had his own epic struggles. He was forced to run away to Midian for 60 years to escape execution; he endured constant complaints by his constituents as well as a full-blown rebellion by his own cousin – not to mention his being denied entrance to Israel, his fondest wish.
Esther risked her life, and had to endure a horrendous marriage, in order to save her people. David, too, suffered greatly; he was branded an outsider, a bastard even, and was forced to run for his life from King Saul, who sought his death. Both David, in his Psalms, and Solomon, in Proverbs, remarked chastely, “He whom God loves, He chastises.”
Suffering breeds character and hones our faith in God. Tragedy begets tenaciousness and serves to bring out our untapped potential to courageously face our fears and transform our fate into a more glorious destiny. That has always been our task and our trademark: confronted by calamity and catastrophe in virtually every age, we rise to unbelievable heights of moral strength and heroic action, inspiring the generations to come. As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote, “The kedusha [holiness] of our nation is in direct proportion to our willingness to sacrifice for a higher value.”
The corona crisis, along with its devastation, has shone a spotlight on a parade of heroes, from the medical teams that healed us to the average person who refused to succumb to depression or deprivation. I am in awe of all those entrepreneurs whose businesses were shuttered during the lockdown, yet are determined to come back and start again.
As a people, we know the secret of turning a negative into a positive.
On a personal level, when the synagogues and batei midrash (study halls) closed, our Bnei Akiva chapter organized the “Corona Collel,” eight weeks of nightly classes on Zoom, given by members of the group and shared by participants worldwide.
Many have used the lockdown to increase the quality of our prayers, to come closer to our spouses and families, and to discover the beauty of silence, meditation and introspection.
We have reached out to forgotten friends and gained an appreciation for so many of the things we long took for granted. Maybe we even gained a newfound respect for the world community at large, a commonality derived from the knowledge that suffering crosses all barriers of religion, race and social status.
I pray that this event departs soon, never to return. But at the same time, I hope the lessons we have learned during this latest trial will stay with us for a long, long while.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana,