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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  (rabbi@adathisraelsf.org) has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.


 

We are all trying our best to cope with the new realities that the Coronavirus has thrust upon us. Being that we will not be able to meet up face-to-face for the immediate future, I’ve chosen to expand my blog posts. As a rabbi, it is natural for me to wonder - what could be the meaning of a virus forcing millions around the world into a “timeout” of quarantine and seclusion? In an attempt to answer this, I invite you to read the following two articles. The first article comes from Gretchen Schmelzer, who brings her expertise as a licensed psychologist and Harvard Medical School Fellow, as well her experience as a survivor of trauma, to make a high call of action to us all during these troubling times. The second comes from Rabbi Benjamin Blech in his article titled “God and the Coronavirus.” Let me know if you agree or disagree with what they have to say.

This Can Be Our Finest Hour - But We Need All of You 

For the vast majority of people nationwide and worldwide, this virus is not about you. This is one of those times in life, in history, when your actions are about something bigger. They are about someone else. They are about something greater, a greater good that you may not ever witness. A person you will save who you will never meet.

You may be healthy, and your kids may be healthy. You parents may be healthy. Everyone around you seems fine. And all the things you planned and the 2020 spring you thought you were going to have has been completely undone. You have to work from home. Your conference is cancelled. Your semester is over. Your work is cancelled. It all seems fast, and out-of-proportion and disorienting. You look at each action and think—but it would be okay if I did that. It’s not so big. We worked so hard. They would be so disappointed. 

Your losses are real. Your disappointments are real. Your hardships are real. I don’t mean to make light or to minimize the difficulty ahead for you, your family or community. 

But this isn’t like other illnesses and we don’t get to act like it is. It’s more contagious, it’s more fatal—and most importantly, even if it can be managed. It can’t be managed at a massive scale—anywhere. We need this thing to move slowly enough for our collective national and worldwide medical systems to hold the very ill so that all of the very ill can get taken care of. Because at this time of severe virus there are also all of the other things that require care. There is still cancer, there are still heart attacks, there are still car accidents, there are still complicated births. And we need our medical systems to be able to hold us. And we need to be responsible because our medical systems are made up of people and these amazing healthcare workers are a precious and limited resource. They will rise to this occasion. They will work to help you heal. They will work to save your mother or father or sister or baby. But in order for that to happen we have very important work to do. ALL OF US.

So what is our work? Yes, you need to wash your hands and stay home if you are sick. But the biggest work you can do is expand your heart and your mind to see yourself and see your family as part of a much bigger community that can have a massive—hugely massive—impact on the lives of other people. I remember the feeling of helplessness after 9/11 and after Hurricane Sandy. I remember how much people wanted to help. I remember how much generosity of spirit there was about wanting to give, wanting to be helpful, wanting to save lives. And many of you have had experiences since then—whether it was a mass shooting, or the wildfires, or floods. There have been times you have looked on and wondered how you could help. And now we ALL have that chance.

You can help by canceling anything that requires a group gathering. You can help by not using the medical system unless it is urgent. You can help by staying home if you are sick. You can help by cooking or shopping or doing errands for a friend who needs to stay home. You can help by watching someone’s kid if they need to cover for someone else at work. You can help by ordering take-out from your local restaurants. Eat the food yourself or find someone who needs it. You can help by offering to help bring someone’s college student home or house out-of-town students if you have extra rooms. You can help by asking yourself, “What can I and my family do to help?” “What can we offer?” You can help by seeing yourself as part of something bigger than yourself.

When the Apollo 13 oxygen tank failed and the lunar module was in danger of not returning to earth, Gene Kranz, the lead flight director overheard people saying that this could be the worst disaster NASA had ever experienced—to which he is rumored to have responded, “With all due respect, I believe this is going to be our finest hour.”

Imagine if we could make our response to this crisis our finest hour. Imagine if a year or two from now we looked back on this and told the stories of how we came together as a team in our community, in our state, in our nation and across the world. Your contribution to the finest hour may seem small, invisible, inconsequential—but every small act of ‘not doing’ what you were going to do, and ‘doing’ an act of kindness or support will add up exponentially. These acts can and will save lives. The Apollo 13 crew made it their finest hour by letting go of the word “I” and embracing the word “we.” And that’s the task required of us. It can only be our finest hour if we work together. You are all on the team. And we need all of you to shine in whatever way you can.

God and the Coronavirus                                                          

Coronavirus is now officially a global pandemic. Suddenly we find ourselves smitten by a plague of biblical severity.

Passover asks us to remember the 10 plagues which God sent against the Egyptians. With the help of the Bible we know the purpose behind these afflictions of a people. God had a plan. Egyptian suffering had meaning. What makes our contemporary anguish so particularly unbearable is its seeming incomprehensibility.

In the age of the prophets there would’ve been an effort to discern some divine message in this global tragedy. But today we somehow assume that scientific knowledge precludes the possibility for including God as part of the management of the universe. After all who can argue with Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch who, in the latter half of the 19th century, proved the germ theory of disease – that pathogens too small to see without magnification are the true cause of illness. Germs are the villains and viruses are the sole reasons for the presence of diseases which determine whether we live or die.

And I dare to ask: Doesn’t belief in God demand that we merge the germ theory of disease with the conviction of faith in a supreme being who actually decides where, when and how far viruses spread?

Please understand exactly what I’m saying. Maimonides long ago made clear that it is our obligation to ensure our good health. We can’t simply rely on God; God has made us his partners in our quest for longevity. Hygiene is a mitzvah; it's an obligation. Taking care of our bodies is a spiritual requirement akin to protecting our souls. When we are directed by doctors to wash our hands, we are required to do so by Torah law.

But the ultimate decision of life or death remains, as we make clear every year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when our fate is sealed, with the Almighty.

That is why I’m amazed that of the countless suggestions for how to counter and to cope with the coronavirus we hear so little of the word God and the possibility that this global pandemic brings with it a profound divine message.

I am obviously no prophet, but here is a thought that I think is worth considering and taking to heart. Every parent knows that one of the most obvious responses to a child’s misbehavior is what is commonly known as a “timeout.” The child is restricted from enjoying pleasurable activities. The child has his normal life disrupted. The child is encouraged to reflect upon his disobedience. Is it too much to consider that as our world continues to sink ever lower in our commitment to virtue that God responded with a virus that has forced millions into a “timeout” of quarantine and seclusion?

The 10 Commandments are the biblical source of the most basic system of ethical and moral behavior. They represent the primary justification for our continued existence on earth. And the commentators took note of a remarkable number. In the original Hebrew, the language in which the commandments were inscribed by God on the two tablets, there are exactly 620 letters.

620 would seem to be a number with no particular theological significance. It would’ve been perfect and readily comprehensible if there were exactly 613 letters in the 10 Commandments. Those are the numbers of mitzvot given to the Jewish people in the Torah. The 10 Commandments are the principles inherent in all of Jewish law. But what is the meaning of 620 letters? 

The rabbis explained. While the number of mitzvot for Jews is 613, the number seven represents universal law – what is commonly referred to as the seven laws of the descendants of Noah, required as a minimum for all of mankind. And 620 of course is the sum of 613 and seven, the totality of divine guidance for both Jews as well as the rest of the world.

The commentary does not end there. 620 is the gematria, the numerical value, of an important Hebrew word, keter, which means crown. A keter – a crown – is placed on top of every Torah scroll. The symbolism is obvious. The crown above the Torah demonstrates the relationship of the 10 Commandments to the rest of the Torah. From the 10 – in number of letters 620 – we have the principles which subsequently found expression in the entirety of the Torah.

The keter – the crown – is the most powerful symbol of our connection with God.

The word corona – as in coronavirus – comes from the Latin word for crown.

Perhaps we need to consider the world’s present affliction not just in the context of a disease caused by pathogens but as a divine message reminding us that we have been given our lives to invest them with meaning and virtue as defined by God's 10 Commandments.