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Spiritual Responses to Coronavirus

March 30, 2020 | by Rabbi Jonathan Feldman, PhD

Lessons from the unprecedented pandemic that is a causing global crisis.

The Almighty is running the world, so we can trust that there is a reason why this is happening. We aren't prophets so the most we can do is explore what lessons we can learn from this unprecedented pandemic and how we can respond to the challenges.

In a letter published in Jewish newspapers Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the leading sage of our generation, writes that there are three things we need to work on in response to the coronavirus: humility, giving to others, and not speaking negatively about other people.

Why are these the personal qualities we should be focusing on?

The first lesson of humility is to internalize the fact that we are not in control. With the many technological miracles occurring at the beginning of the 21st century – AI, mapping of the genome, genetic engineering, quantum computers – we cannot control a microscopic virus. We are all cowering in our homes, health care workers are the soldiers on the front lines, and tens of thousands of people are dying across the globe.

Our tradition tells us that even though we think that our efforts are what direct the events of the world, every so often we are taught in a very dramatic manner that this is not the case. The Torah warns us not to think "my strength and the work of my hands produced this wealth" (Deuteronomy 8:17). Man is not the ultimate source of power; that there is a superior authority beyond us. The Almighty is teaching us to temper our pride and sense of empowerment.

The second lesson we need to learn is that we are all connected and responsible for each other. I am accountable for my brothers and sisters. And we are also responsible for the whole world, and if the God loves all human beings, then we too must love them and look out for them as well.

We are being challenged to embody this teaching in an extreme way. We are being asked to shut down our lives, isolate ourselves in our homes, and seclude ourselves with our families, and for many to be totally alone, in order to save others’ lives. We are being asked to put our personal freedoms and desires aside for the sake of others. Yes, if we socialize there is a danger to ourselves, however, we understand that the real danger is to older people.

And indeed, some people across the world are pushing back, asking ‘what about the economy?’ The economy is a concern, but here in Israel there is a clear message: Jewish values call on us to isolate otherwise the elderly will be in grave danger. The lives of all people our society comes first.

As this crisis begins to abate, we will have learned that all of mankind is required to be responsible for one other, because we can no longer say that a virus on the other side of the world is not my problem. And we also need to remember that as Jews we have a delicate balance of having a global consciousness and caring, while remembering that we also need to keep our distinctly Jewish values. An example of this is the absolute value of human life which cannot be compromised. Upholding our values sometimes calls for us to maintain boundaries and remain distinct from the rest of world. Rabbi Kanievsky says that we should apply this lesson in our homes as well. Instead of getting in an argument with a family member, we should defer to them and nullify our own desires.

The final teaching we should contemplate is why we are being isolated from our friends, our grandparents, our community, and our synagogue. We find social distancing in the Torah under the laws of the metzorah, the person who contracts a spiritual malady called tzaraat. If a person contracted tzarat they were sent out of the camp, like a leper, for a minimum of one week . Our Sages explain that one is struck with this disease due to a spiritual cause, speaking negatively of others, or lashon hara. This happened in the Torah to Miriam when she criticized the actions of her brother Moses. The lesson seems clear; if we speak ill of someone when we are socializing, if we gossip with our friends about others, then we no longer deserve to have the privilege of those social bonds because we are misusing them. And isolation can teach us to reflect on how to have positive and constructive social interactions instead of negative and destructive ones.

The question we need to ask ourselves is: Will this tragedy lead us to change and become better people? Will we use it to think about our lives from a new perspective, with one that helps us to internalize that we are not in control and that we need to make room in our lives to let the Almighty in? One that teaches us to put others’ needs before our own, even if it causes us inconvenience or discomfort. One that brings about peace and harmony with others and avoids gossip, hurt, and strife.

Let’s get to work! And perhaps a different, more loving, accepting, supportive, socially-conscientious, and God-conscious world can emerge from this devastating tragedy.


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