Font Size


Seeing God in Covid


Once again, Rabbi Benjamin Blech has been inspired by current events to put pen to paper and share his insights.  He recently sent me the following essays: A Rabbi’s Confession: What I Discovered by Not Going to Shul” andGod and the Pfizer Vaccine.” In the first piece, he talks about the three different functions of a shul and which he feels is most important. Let me know if you agree or disagree with him. In the second, he demonstrates a fascinating connection between the Torah and science (oy, how I envy his ability to see the world through a Torah lens and articulately share it with others)

Blog #1:

Who would believe that I would admit to this publicly?

Praying is an essential part of my life. I’ve always been profoundly moved by the beautiful explanation given by rabbinic commentators as reason for why we pray three times a day: If our bodies need the physical nourishment of breakfast, lunch and dinner for a healthy lifestyle then our souls similarly require the spiritual sustenance of Shacharit, Minchah and Ma’ariv. Going to shul is not just a mitzvah, it’s almost a medical requirement.

And yet with just a very few rare exceptions on the High Holy Days – made possible by outdoor prayer on a temporarily closed for traffic city street- I haven’t been able to pray in a synagogue since the start of the global pandemic. For the longest time the local shuls were shut down by city edict. When they finally were permitted to reopen with strict guidelines for number of attendees, age restrictions for the elderly as well as my own doctor’s orders have forced me to continue my personal spiritual quarantine.

So it is now more than half a year that I haven’t been able to talk to God in the sanctity of my otherwise “second home” – a synagogue that allows me to feel kinship not only with the Almighty but with my fellow community of Jews as well.

This period of personal deprivation has taught me a crucial lesson about the blessing of synagogue life. In Jewish tradition a synagogue is known by three different Hebrew names. It is commonly called a Beit Tefillah – a house of prayer. Others frequently prefer to refer to it as a Beit Midrash – a house of study. Finally, and perhaps most often, it is known as a Beit Ha-Knesset, a house of communal gathering.

The three names emphasize the three different purposes of the place Jewish genius created to serve as substitute for the holy Temple after its destruction. A synagogue, the Talmud tells us, is a mikdash me’at – a mini sanctuary and perhaps more than anything else it was historically responsible for the preservation of Judaism and the Jewish people.

Yet each of the Hebrew names for a synagogue emphasizes a different important aspect. Obviously, prayer is one of them. Of course, it should be called a Beit Tefillah, a House of Prayer. Yet, a synagogue without an emphasis on the study of Torah surely lacks a crucial component. It was Rabbi Kook who famously said that the difference between prayer and Torah is that in prayer man speaks to God and in Torah God speaks to man. The synagogue needs to emphasize both of these conversations and its Hebrew name can certainly reflect one or the other.

But the third name, Beit Ha-Knesset, a house of communal gathering, focuses on a different dimension of synagogue life: community. A synagogue is other people. A synagogue is friendship. A synagogue is sharing in the lives of others. It allows for communal celebrations of joy, commemorations of achievements, exchanging of Mazel Tovs. It makes possible offering condolences, helping others get through times of grief and of sorrows, showing other people with a hug or a handshake that they are not alone.

Yes, we are permitted to pray by ourselves, but it is not ideal. Prayer should take place with a minyan – at least nine other people. As a Hasidic rabbi beautifully put it, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.” In the United States, a recent issue of Psychology Today tells us, loneliness is currently at epidemic levels. A recent Cigna study of 20,000 U.S. adults found that nearly half of Americans feel like they are alone. There is no doubt that loneliness is on the rise. And it affects people of all ages. A survey by AARP, showed that more than 42 million U.S. adults over age 45 suffer from chronic loneliness.

In the Torah, after reading of the creation of mankind, the Torah tells us, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). A beautiful rabbinic commentary I once heard on this verse is that it is meant to be an addendum to the previous seven times when God, evaluating His acts of creation, uttered His conclusion that “it is good.” Yes, the world and all that God brought into being “is good”, but that is only on one condition. It is good when it is shared. It is beautiful when it is not viewed in isolation. “Lo tov” – it is not good when we are alone, separated from any sense of communal life, estranged from others and condemned to what criminologists recognize as the cruelest form of punishment – solitary confinement.

A synagogue is primarily referred to as a Beit Ha-Knesset. It is where loneliness is exchanged for community, isolation is transformed into the holiness not only of prayer and of Torah study but also of friendship, of shared values, and – yes – even of the kiddush at the end of the services.

So here's my confession. I survived seven months without being in shul. But while I sorely missed my House of Prayer, I prayed at home and still found a great deal of spiritual connection with God. I did not hear the reading of the Torah in a Beit Midrash – but I managed to learn quite a bit on my own with the Torah commentaries in my personal library. But the one thing I could not replace was the Beit Ha-Knesset.

Now I truly understand why Beit Ha-Knesset remains the most universal way people refer to a shul. Life when not shared with others is unbearably desolate; none of us can be truly human in isolation. Our service of God requires that we relate to other people. Frankly, I’m lonely.

And when the day will come, please God in the very near future, when the plague will be but a bitter memory, I will treasure as never before the blessings of community, friendship, and of togetherness that only a Beit Ha-Knesset can provide.


Blog #2:

As Covid-19 cases skyrocket around the globe with the current pandemic, the recent announcement by the drug maker Pfizer that its coronavirus vaccine is 95% effective and has no serious side effects at last offers us hope that we may be at a turning point in our present nightmare.

Pfizer said the company plans to apply to the Food and Drug Administration for emergency authorization in the next few days and a working vaccine could soon be distributed – a truly historic moment in the history of science in terms of speed of development of a preventative measure to halt the spread of the devastating worldwide killer of millions. Let's hope the vast majority of Americans – and the world – are convinced of its safety and will take it (a September 2020 Pew poll recorded that almost half of the American population would consider not taking the vaccine). 

It is important to understand what Maimonides long ago emphasized as the clear understanding of the Torah's statement, "I am the Lord, your healer" (Exodus, 15:26), which specifies God's promise to heal us:

Based on the same logic [that if God wills us to be sick we dare not interfere with his will and we therefore may not practice medicine] we could say, “Don’t eat. If God has decreed that one must die, he will die even if he eats. And if God has decreed that one must live, he will live even if he does not eat. So don’t eat!" Obviously, that is nonsense. Certainly God does all, but He does it by way of His emissaries, both His destructive angels, like sickness, and His ministering angels, like the physicians. And if you refuse to let God’s benign emissaries help you, you deserve your punishment – the ministering angels will abandon you and the destructive angels will harm you. Rambam, Perush Mishnayot, Pesachim, 4:10

God is the ultimate healer of course. But He demands of us the partnership that defines all of human achievement and progress. The fact that God is the Doctor par excellence does not exclude us from that profession but rather demands of us to imitate the Almighty. It is, again from the works of Maimonides that we are taught that our primary obligation is imitatio dei – using the ways of God as motivation and inspiration to all that we do as well.

The Talmud puts it beautifully: God at the beginning of the Bible clothes the naked. At the end of the Torah, God buries the dead. So too must we perceive the care of others as ultimate mitzvot – as well as all the other acts of the Almighty we are taught in the Torah.

From a Jewish perspective, Pfizer's amazingly quick development of a vaccine to prevent Covid-19 is a fulfillment of the biblical imperative to continue the divine act of creation as well as the Almighty’s role of healing.

In a fascinating historic comparison, the earliest published Torah material concerning vaccination was in 1785. Alexander ben Solomon Nanisch of Hamburg, who had lost two of his own children to smallpox, published a work entitled Aleh Terufah in London containing a responsum concerning the permissibility according to Jewish law of inoculation against smallpox. There had been a significant amount of public opposition to Jenner’s new inoculation and this was not a risk that most people were prepared to take. It did not take long however for the Jewish majority opinion that stressed not only permissibility but even obligation for vaccination to prevail. So much so that Rabbi Yisroel Lifshitz, one of the most prominent religious leaders in the early part of the 19th century, author of the commentary “Tiferes Yisroel” on the Mishnah, wrote of his certainty that several non-Jews were assured of a great portion in the world to come for their positive contributions to human kind. In addition to Guttenberg who invented the printing press which made possible the unprecedented spread of knowledge, he added Edward Jenner who invented the smallpox vaccination.

What is particularly intriguing is that both Pfizer and Jenner used an approach that was not only daring but in fact seems at first to be counterintuitive. Yet it has a striking parallel to an event recorded in the Torah – the very event which concludes with God identifying himself as “I am the Lord your healer.”

In Exodus Chapter 15 we read how the Jews who had just fled from Egypt were faced with the potentially fatal reality of the lack of drinking water. 

At a place called marah, bitter, so named because of its bitter and undrinkable waters, the Jews pleaded for divine assistance. God’s advice was to take a small part of a bitter tree and cast it into the water. Miraculously from the bitter itself came sweetness. The cure was somehow in a small portion of the very same essence that caused the problem!

Edward Jenner conquered smallpox when he carried out his famous experiment to insert pus extracted from a cowpox pustule on the hand of milkmaid into a healthy boy who gained immunity from his minimal exposure. Today, Pfizer, as well as Moderna, developed vaccines that both use a synthetic version of coronavirus genetic material to program a person’s cells to churn out many copies of a fragment of the virus. That fragment sets off alarms in the immune system and stimulates it to attack if the person is exposed to the real virus.

It is an incredible – and profound – scientific reality: It is “the bad” – the bitter – that contains the key to its elimination. And it is precisely in the aftermath of that biblical revelation that God identifies himself as divine healer.

Let us hope that the time of healing has at last arrived – through the partnership of human ingenuity together with divine inspiration and assistance.