Feeling God’s Presence During Covid-19

October 19, 2020

11 min read


Henny Machlis’s recipe for treating the ills of the pandemic.

Rebbetzin Henny Machlis passed away five years ago* without ever having heard of Covid-19, but she left us a recipe for dealing with this difficult period.

Her recipe has two ingredients: Emunah (faith in God, explained below) and personal prayer.

Although the Bible you may have received at your Bar/Bat Mitzvah probably translates the second of the Ten Commandments as, “You shall have no other gods before me,” the Hebrew word for “gods” also means “powers.” Emunah means believing that there is a single Divine force that controls the universe, which entails believing exclusively in God and not in any other powers. That includes political powers, economic powers, and even the power of a coronavirus vaccine to save us from the plague.

Although God works (most of the time) through the laws of nature that God has set up, the Divine will is responsive to prayer. This leads us to the second ingredient in Henny’s “Good-for-any-crisis” recipe: personal prayer. While Henny advocated and practiced praying from the traditional siddur, or Jewish prayer book, in the morning, afternoon, and evening, she was a vocal champion of personal prayer.

Prayer, she explained, is not simply or even primarily requesting things of God. To Henny, the purpose of life was to connect to God, and prayer was the means to forge that connection. She once told a campus rabbi to deliver this message to his students: “Everyone has to know that we should talk to God. We have a direct line.”

The screen that hides God can be pierced by the simple act of talking directly to God.

The truth is that God is present always and everywhere, but we human beings are not present to this camouflaged reality. The “hiddenness of God” is a major theme in Judaism. But the screen that hides God can be pierced by the simple act of talking directly to God. That’s why all blessings in the Jewish liturgy start by addressing God in the second person, “Blessed are You…” Especially in these times of quarantine, isolation, and loneliness, the truth that God is always present and always listening can be life-saving.

In Every Situation

Because Henny had absolute faith that God is in complete control (except of human beings’ free-will moral choices), she advocated prayer in every situation. One of her students told this story [from Emunah with Love and Chicken Soup]:

One time I had this crazy issue with my blood pressure. It went sky high. It was before Shabbos, and I was going to have guests. The doctor wanted to put me in the hospital. My blood pressure was 200/170.

Rebbetzin Machlis taught me that I am getting it wrong if I think this is a medical problem. Rather, this is from God, because I am not connecting to Him. I asked the nurse to give me a minute. She thought I was crazy. I started to daven, “God this is from You. God, You know I need to be home. Please, God, I need to be home. I know this is from You. I know it’s You.”

Then I said to the nurse, “Take it again.” They took my blood pressure again, and it was 120/60. The nurse called the doctor because she couldn’t believe it. I told her my Rebbetzin said, “We just need to connect to God.”

While we may think that prayer is a response to difficult situations, Henny inverted that idea. She taught that God gives us difficult situations so that we will turn to Him in prayer.

During the last eight years of her life, Henny suffered from cancer. Many times, she travelled from her home in Jerusalem to New York to undergo treatments and surgeries at Sloan Kettering, the premiere cancer hospital in Manhattan. She was always accompanied, often by as many as three of her grown children. Her daughter Sara relates:

When we’d be at Sloan Kettering, my mother would say, "Why do you think God keeps bringing us back here? Because we have to daven for all the people who are here.” Each one of us had her own job. One had to daven for the sick people, one had to daven for the lost Jewish souls there. People thought we were crazy. Why are there three bodyguards coming with this sick lady? Some people come alone. But each one had a job of whom to doven for. We were in the hospital for hours and hours and we each had our job of whom to doven for.

This is a profound idea: Because the purpose of life is to connect to God, God gives us challenges, frustrations, and lacks so that we will turn to God in prayer. And because God controls both the major and minor events in our lives, every moment is an opportunity to make that connection. One of the Talmudic sages said that we should ask God even when we need a shoelace. A student of Henny relates:

I have a 12-year old son who is PDD, on the autism spectrum. Before Rosh Hashana, he told us he couldn’t keep two days of Rosh Hashanah unless he has a Rubik’s cube. This was 15 minutes before Yom Tov.

I went around to all the neighbors. Every neighbor I asked had a Rubik’s cube, but they wouldn’t give it to me. I was thinking, “We need our son to observe Rosh Hashanah.” They all know my son, but God was not letting them give it to me.

The first day of Rosh Hashanah came, and my son told me again, “I need a Rubik’s cube; I have nothing to do.” I went to other neighbors and asked them, but I came away empty-handed. In the afternoon, I walked to my neighbor’s house and I saw her kids playing with a Rubik’s cube. But she couldn’t loan it to me because it wasn’t theirs. No one would loan us their Rubik’s cube.

I thought, “This is crazy.” Then I finally I got it. God wanted me to ask HIM for the Rubik’s cube!

I spoke to God, “If YOU want me to have a Rubik’s cube, please give me one. You’ll have to get it for me. My son needs it. Please give me a Rubik’s cube.” I walked out the door and ran into a friend on the steps. I asked her, and she had a Rubik’s cube in her apartment. She immediately ran and got it and lent it to me.

Speaking to God throughout the Day

Henny advocated and practiced two kinds of personal prayer. The first kind is to speak to God throughout the day, whatever you are doing. When washing the dishes, folding laundry, exercising, walking, or driving, you can be speaking to God. When busy people told her that they didn’t have time to recite the prayers from the siddur, she would tell them to just speak to God all the time. “Even if you wake up at night to turn from left to right,” she counselled, “talk to God.” As she taught her students:

You're trying to have a relationship with God, and you do that through prayer. But it depends on the circumstances. If a person is so busy with their house and job … you have to learn to talk to God in your own words. Say to Him, “I love You,” or “I want to love You,” or “Help me love You.”

During the current pandemic, we are beset by fears—fears of contracting the disease itself and fears of the economic and political fall-out of the plague. The antidote to fear is the combination of emunah and prayer. Both ingredients are essential. The more you believe that God is in control and the more you empower yourself with the knowledge that prayer is a direct line to God, the more “miracles” you will see. As Henny taught, “When we pray, we are moving worlds.”

What should you say when speaking to God? The classic Duties of the Heart maintains that human beings are either in wanting mode or thanking mode. Of course, thanking mode is more conducive of satisfaction and happiness. As you’re getting dressed, you can thank God that the shirt you’re putting on comes from cotton you didn’t grow, thread you didn’t spin, fabric you didn’t weave made on machines you didn’t design or produce, etc., but here is this good shirt for you to wear. Thank you, God!

One-On-One with God

The second kind of personal prayer that Henny strongly advocated was to set aside time, go outside, and talk out loud to God. Start with five minutes, she would teach, and gradually increase your time. This is called hitboddedut. It differs from talking to God throughout the day because during hitboddedut you are not multi-tasking. During this special time, you have a private audience with the Master of the Universe.

Speaking out loud, start by thanking God for two minutes, and then talk to Him about whatever’s on your mind. But, cautions Rabbi Shalom Arush, God dislikes whining. Notice the difference between this:

“God, I can’t stand it! I can’t pay my bills due to Covid-19. I lost my job and there’s no possibility of a new job in my field. How can this be happening? I’m feeling desperate!”

And this:

“God, I know You are in complete control, and that You love me and always do what’s spiritually best for me. I know You are in control of Covid-19, although I don’t understand the Divine plan that allowed this pandemic to strike the world. But now I need to pay my bills, and I lost my job. So please send me the money to pay my bills. I know You can send me a new job, or You can send me money in many other ways.”

Henny would tell a parable about a doctor who had the night shift at a hospital. The hospital was short of staff and had only that one doctor on duty. However, he was told that if he got overwhelmed and needed help, he should call in and they would send additional staff. The doctor worked selflessly throughout the night. It got very busy, and he ran from patient to patient. Unfortunately, one patient died. The doctor was sued. He told the court that he didn’t understand why he was there because he gave literally everything he had to keep the hospital running that night. The judge told him that he wasn’t at fault for trying to help all the patients; he was at fault for not asking for help.

“So,” explains a student, “the Rebbetzin would tell us to ask God for help, that we needed to go out and call out to God. Tell Him what you’re struggling with. You need to say out loud all of the issues you are struggling with and say, ‘God, you made me this way.’ Ask God to change you in these areas.”

There’s no room for sadness, and there's no room for despair. There's only room for prayer. And we can't be lazy.

Because the purpose of prayer is to draw you closer to God, even when the request is denied, as it may be, the prayer is successful. It has taken you from being a vulnerable person drowning in an ocean of randomness and meaninglessness to landing safely on a shore where the One who most loves you is present and caring for you in inscrutable ways.

Covid-19 has brought rising domestic abuse, depression, and anxiety. All of these can be ameliorated by emunah and prayer, by recognizing that you are not alone, that God is intimately present with you. As Rebbetzin Henny Machlis used to say, “There’s no room for sadness, and there's no room for despair. There's only room for prayer. And we can't be lazy. We have to force it out of ourselves. When we need help, we have to ask God for everything from the parking space to not yelling at your child or your husband. We need help. We need help. … God wants to hear from you.”

*The 5th yahrzeit of Rebbetzin Henny Machlis falls this year on Tuesday night/Wednesday, Oct. 20/21. If you have been inspired by her, please light a candle for Henna Rasha bat Moshe Chaim.

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