Understanding God's role as we enter lockdown before Rosh Hashanah

There were those who taught that God controls whatever happens, and those who were taught that the world functions in accord with the arbitrary rules of nature irrespective of human comportment.

HEARING THE shofar is one of the core aspects of the Rosh Hashanah prayers (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
HEARING THE shofar is one of the core aspects of the Rosh Hashanah prayers
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
We enter this Rosh Hashanah 5781 with heavy hearts in Israel, in the midst of a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic plague. In our tradition, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim), and our New Year Days specifically as Days of Judgment (Yemei Hadin); indeed, I vividly remember and can still hear my grandmother’s beseeching sobs from the women’s gallery in the shul I attended as a child every holiday with my grandparents, a landsmanshaft synagogue founded by emigrés from Lubien, Poland, to Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The specific prayer that drew forth more tears than any other was the “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer ascribed to Rav Kalonymus ben Meshulam of Mayence (circa 1100 CE).
“Let us give power to the sanctity of this day, for it is awesome and fearful!

It is true that You are Judge and Decisor, Omniscient and All-seeing…

You open the Book of Remembrances, with the Signature of every human hand written therein...

The angels are quaking, shaking with fear and trembling, declaring:
‘Behold the Day of Judgment is at hand; No one emerges guiltless in Your eyes of Judgment...’

Just as the shepherd... passes each sheep under his staff,

So do You pass through, record, number and appoint every living soul,

Fixing a specific lifetime limit to every human creature...

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:

How many shall pass away and how many shall be born...

Who by fire and who by water... who by earthquake and who by plague...

Who shall be brought down and who shall be raised up.” 
The picture evoked by this prayer is frightening, positing a God who is a strict judge and an omnipotent King, fair but precise in judgment. Who eventually metes out the death sentence to every human mortal in whichever manner and after whatever length of time on earth God deems most appropriate. Moreover, the Almighty decides the fate of each individual on Rosh Hashanah based on the person’s actions during the previous year: “Who shall be brought down and who shall be raised up?”
From this perspective, since our entire world has become infected by the COVID-19 plague, at the very least it behooves us to attempt to identify the worldwide sin which initially brought about such a pandemic, and then at least some of us can repent and perhaps mitigate further suffering. After all, the piyut concludes with a final opportunity to rectify past misdeeds and avert punishment in the year to come: 
“Repentance, prayer and charitable righteousness can remove the evil decree.” 
But perhaps in the final analysis the most agonizing question of all is how to square this just but punitive liturgical piyut with our concept of a loving God (YHVH) who is a God of unconditional love before we sin and even after we sin (Exodus 34:6, Rashi on the repetition of the Ineffable Name of God YHVH). 
It is important to understand that there are two contrasting attitudes of the Talmudic Sages as to how to understand God’s relationship to our world: there were those who taught that God controls whatever happens, that a leaf doesn’t fall from a tree unless God causes it to fall, as we see in the “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer, and thus if a plague has descended, it is deserved by the inhabitants. Other Sages, however, maintained that the world functions in accord with the arbitrary rules of nature irrespective of human comportment (B.T. Avodah Zara 54b), that righteous people may often suffer and wicked may prosper, that there is no reward for commandments in this world (B.T. Kiddushin 39b). And it is this second view which is the dominant one in the Talmud as well as in our life experiences. 
Indeed, it is almost impossible to blind ourselves to the reality, seen so clearly by the Prophet Isaiah, that God created an imperfect and incomplete world, a world with light but also darkness, with order but also chaos, with good but also evil: “I form light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil, I am the Maker of all these” (Isaiah 45:7). God is credited with (or blamed for) evil because He created a world in potential, with all the necessary raw materials but which required human hands to activate and develop it (Gen. 2:5), or, God forbid, to neglect and even destroy it. He created the human being in the very image of the Divine, with uninhibited freedom of choice, even to do that which God would not have wanted done (Gen. 1:26, Seforno s.v. like our likeness). 
In effect, God ceded a portion of His omnipotence to human beings (the Kabbalistic tzimtzum, the narrowing of God’s powers, as it were) in order to enhance the role of human beings to emerge not merely as God’s most advanced creations but hopefully as God’s partners to teach Torah ethics to all of humanity and to assume the responsibility to perfect God’s incomplete world (Gen 2:15). And so in these verses the Bible uses God’s Ineffable Name of the Loving Lord (JHVH), who lovingly created the human being to whom He lovingly gave a portion of His Divine Self from above, in God’s Divine image, and so could become a fitting partner for the Divine as the human walks and leads on earth.
Now from this renewed perspective, let us look again at the piyut “Unetaneh Tokef.” It is the beginning of a New Year, a Day of Judgment, not so much God judging us as to what kind of year He will give us – we have already said that we are neither punished nor rewarded in this world – but we are rather assessing ourselves, considering how we spent this past year of our lives. Did we attempt to better ourselves by bettering the world around us, our family, our society, the society at large – each of us in the context of our sphere of influence? We are not in control of how long we will live, but we are in control of how we spend the time that is at our disposal. And as Rabbi Akiva taught, the greatest principle of Torah is to love and give to others (ahava is love from the smaller verb hav, to give) – in whatever situation we may find ourselves, whether it be war or plague or hospitalization or simply developing society. 
I WILL never forget Dassy Rabinovitch z”l, a vibrant older teenager who loved Torah and loved life, who was suddenly felled by a virulent cancer that took her life all too quickly. When I finally found her room in Hadassah Hospital, I was told by the nurse that she was visiting other patients in the hospital, that she spent every afternoon spreading cheer and faith – even when she was in such pain that she could barely walk herself. She understood how to make a meaningful life even in the most difficult of situations; she understood how to partner with God. And so in time of plague, the scientists working on producing a vaccine, the doctors and nurses giving palliative health care, the neighbors and friends helping with the children, bringing in food and, when necessary, giving financially are all partners with God to alleviate the suffering of the hapless victims.
Indeed, this is how the “Unetaneh Tokef” concludes: repentance, prayer and righteous charity will remove the bitterness of the decree. It does not state that these good deeds will remove the evil decree from a world which is still incomplete and often arbitrary, but rather by loving and giving to others by partnering with God, we will remove a large part of the bitterness that often comes when we are only focused on ourselves, rather than reaching out to others. 
And so the plague that we are now suffering must serve to teach us, first and foremost, that we live in a global village in a most inter-dependent world. We Jews, racially persecuted and isolated as vermin for the last 2,000 years of our Exile, dare not ask “for whom the bell tolls” – as next in line for persecution, “it tolls for thee,” for you and for me! We dare not walk alone with God, now that we are an independent and fairly strong nation-state. It rather behooves us to realize our initial mission of bringing the blessing of peace to the world, to become “students of Aaron, lovers of peace and pursuers after peace, lovers of humanity and bringing all the families of the earth closer to Torah” into a world of compassionate righteousness, moral justice and universal peace (Mishnah Avot 1,3). We must partner with God in redeeming His imperfect and often arbitrary world!
The writer is founding chief rabbi of Efrat and the founder, chancellor emeritus and rosh hayeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone.