A little more than a week ago, Rabbi Meir Mazuz, the rosh yeshiva of the Kiseh Rahamim yeshiva in B’nai Brak, declared in a speech to his students that the coronavirus is the result of gay pride parades. Oh yeah, I thought sarcastically, that makes sense.
I tried deciphering the Divine process that got this unto this mess. Here’s a possibility.
Furious at and fed up with gay pride parades, the Master of the Universe, infinitely wise, thought, “Let us devise a punishment for gay pride parades, for I am an angry God because of them. Especially the costumes. Way too much color. Therefore, I shall devise a germ to frighten greatly everyone on the Earth because of its terrible power to spread and kill. It shall cancel sporting events, close malls, and shutter cafes. Stock markets shall crash, and schools everywhere will close. And if this scourge lasts long enough, yea verily, even gay pride parades shall be cancelled. That’ll teach those gay pride people,” thought God Almighty.
Thus, seeking Divine vengeance, the Eternal cast down a terrible plague upon all the Earth. And where did this terrible plague commence doing its awful work so as to wreak revenge on gay pride parades? Greenwich Village? San Francisco? Fire Island? Tel Aviv? Nay, nay. God sent the plague first to China the home (as far is I know) of no gay pride parades.
Okay. Very funny.
God had nothing to do with the coronavirus, and in any event LGBTQ persons are not to be punished for their humanity. Every rational human knows that.
Not that there aren’t serious, religious ways to help us think about how to address this terrible moment in the history of humankind. Allow me to suggest one such.
Every year on Yom Kippur we read the prayer U’n’taneh Tokef, the one that announces the dreadful moment that worshipers are facing on that profound day. Who shall live and who shall die? Who by fire, who by water, who by stoning, and so forth, a litany of the possible ways one might meet one’s end between this Yom Kippur and the next.
Every year I tell my congregants that in this dark prayer lies a powerful truth. As we have gathered this year for Yom Kippur, I say, we can reflect upon who is no longer with us from last year, and those whose lives have changed and for the worse between last year and this year. It’s inevitable. We may think in the day to day that we have significant control over our lives; and for a significant amount of our living we do have control. But never total control. Someone enters the hospital for a routine procedure and leaves having encountered unforeseen complications that have altered his life permanently. Someone takes a spill, bangs her head, and dies. These kinds of unfortunate events are not unusual in our experience over the course of a year. Our lives are in fact enormously fragile things.
This bizarre and perilous development, the coronavirus, was on no one’s mind last Yom Kippur, and now it consumes us unlike anything we’ve experienced in our lifetime except for perhaps during times of war. Come next Yom Kippur, in whatever manner we are able to gather for it, the issue of who lived and who died will be very much at the forefront of our attention.
Famously, U’n’taneh Tokef ends with the line, “Charity, Prayer, and Repentance can reverse the bad decree.”
About that line I tell my congregants that the literalness of this statement is not helpful, at least to me. Though some speaking in the name of the Jewish tradition might hold to the notion that God keeps a ledger with our names inscribed that annually contains our fate for the next year based on our deeds of the past year; and that that fate can be altered through our actions in the world, I find it unbelievable and more, unhelpful. Most theologies, certainly those that make intellectual and spiritual sense to me, do not hold God responsible (or grant God the responsibility) for the fate of every leaf that falls from every tree, much less the fate of every human on a case by case basis.
The trinity of activities the prayer recommends, charity, prayer, and repentance is nonetheless worth taking seriously. Because they define a religious life that creates a world, a world that is far better off than a world without those elements in it.
How might we understand “charity, prayer, and repentance” in the time of coronavirus?
Surely, life in these harrowing times doesn’t begin with affixing cosmic origins or identifying the moral purpose of the visitation of this vile bug. The attitude identified by that trinity, rather, implicitly preaches the unity of all humanity, beginning with the unity of our own community.
These times require a particular kind of charity, particular because it cannot include the kind of physical contact we normally assume in engaging our community. Indeed, I might suggest that avoidance of contact is one act of charity, as we seek to diminish the impact of the bug on our community. Vast opportunities for generosity exist, which will certainly evolve and increase in our isolation. We will have to devise ways to address loneliness, hunger. There will be numerous ways we’ll need to care for others, and those needs will require use of our resources. These times will call upon us to find ways to exercise altruistic behavior if we’re goig to get through this thing with our humanity intact. Right now, allow me to suggest one simple altruistic act: Leave some toilet paper for others.
As for prayer, imagine the act of it in the time of coronavirus, as houses of worship shutter their doors and communal gatherings cease, and synagogues devise ways to meet virtually. How better to help relieve our anxieties than to meet as virtual congregations in prayer and study? It’s a poor substitute for entering the doors and creating holiness as a live body of men and women. But as our isolation continues and social contact diminishes, and our anxieties mount, meeting, praying, and speaking through a platform such as Zoom, will be of enormous comfort.
As for repentance, this one’s more future oriented. A few years ago, Bill Gates warned us of the approach of a pandemic such as this and urged that we prepare. Being a species that puts off till tomorrow, we’ve been caught far less prepared than we should have. Repentance in the age of coronavirus means resolving as a species to change, to commit ourselves to create conditions that will have us better prepared for future such events that will surely arrive as surely as Yom Kippur brings us to our annual confrontation with question,
Who shall live and who shall die? And how will we religiously, kindly, prayerfully, work together to get through this together?
Meanwhile, my daughter Dr. Elisheva Cohen, along with friends of colleagues, has built a very creative list of activities for parents of young children home alone during this time. Those of you with kids under around age four, have a look.
Rabbi Phil Cohen is likely completing his life as an interim rabbi this year , serving Temple Beth El in Riverside, CA. He is busy at work on the sequel to his award-winning novel, Nick Bones Underground, and beginning work on a Doctor of Hebrew Letters in the area of Judaism and bioethics. In November 2023, Rabbi Cohen launched a podcast series, The Making Aliyah Podcast, featuring conversations with people who have decided to make Israel their permanent home.