Unprecedented. Over the pandemic year, that word has been used an unprecedented number of times. Coronavirus has affected our lives and the world in dramatic ways. We have debated and shared strategies to stop the spread, guidance for closing and reopening shuls, schools and businesses, and best practices for using unprecedented quantities of plexiglass.
But in this unprecedented time, have we sufficiently considered what God may possibly want from us?
This is an uncomfortable question that we must nevertheless ask ourselves, even if it may seem overly pious or pretentious to do so.
A core belief and practice of the faithful is to take the world seriously, to see world events as speaking to us rather than just happening around us. In the classic formulation of the Rambam:1
If they do not cry out (in times of trouble) . . . but rather say, “What has happened to us is the way of the world, and this trouble is merely happenstance”—this is surely the way of cruelty, and it causes them to stick to their bad deeds, leading to further troubles. About this is it written in the Torah (Leviticus 26: 27-28), “If you walk arbitrarily with Me then I will [also] walk arbitrarily with you in fury.” That is to say, “When I will bring upon you troubles—if you will say that it is arbitrary, I will increase the fury of this arbitrariness.”
This is not a simple matter. Can any of us dare to suggest that we know why things happen? In a world where bad things happen to good people, it would be the height of hubris for anyone to claim an ability to explain God’s actions.
Rambam is not suggesting that we do that at all, that we offer specific explanations of God’s motives. What he is requiring of us is that we take it personally, that we see God’s hand in these events and that we respond to them by turning to Him. We must recognize that things like the pandemic—even things far less dramatic than the pandemic—do not just happen. God is trying to get our attention.
And while we cannot suggest or declare exactly why we are experiencing these things, we can be clear that we must emerge from them better than we went in. Beginning with the primal response of turning to God in heartfelt prayer and taking note of His role and presence, we must continue to the point where the challenge has brought us closer to the Divine ideal.
The great people who survived or who were spared from the Holocaust and who proceeded to rebuild Jewish life in Israel, America and elsewhere did not spend inordinate amounts of time and energy trying to figure out why the Holocaust happened. But they understood that their survival should move them to recreate a flourishing and aspiring Torah community. Without having a clue as to why that tragedy had befallen them, they nevertheless knew that they had to respond to it in a generative manner, ensuring that the challenge would not push them away from God and His ideals but would rather draw them and their people closer. We who are sustained by the world of Torah and Jewish life that they built are the beneficiaries of their vision and their vigorous spiritual response.
Now it is our turn. While nothing can compare to the horror of the Holocaust, we can learn from our grandparents and great-grandparents how to respond to tragedy and catastrophe. Having experienced the upheaval of the pandemic, we must ask ourselves not why it happened but what we will do to ensure that we will build on this experience, to ensure that we come out better.2
But before we emerge to reimagine, redesign and remake shul life, family life or the work/life balance, let us humbly ensure that we do not come out worse.
Because while we may not be able to suggest why this happened and we may be unable to identify the appropriate positive response to the pandemic, we can be somewhat more confident about what should not be the result. Much as Rambam taught that while God Himself is unknowable, we can nevertheless know what He is not—i.e., not physical, not temporal, not limited in any way—we may similarly say that while we may not know specifically what God wants from us, we can be reasonably confident about what He would not want as the outcome, and that is to see us become defiant and splintered.
We are inherently challenged in our relationship with authority and our pursuit of unity. A fundamental quality of our people is that we are counter-cultural iconoclasts. Avraham—the first Jew—was known as an Ivri, recalling how he stood alone and isolated from the entire world around him.3 He was willing to buck the system and ignore the crowds, defying the authority of the king and the direction chosen by his community, family and parents. He answered to a Higher Authority.
In a remarkable essay, Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, zt”l,4 suggests that the exile in Egypt was engineered specifically to remedy our rejection of authority and unity. Our descent to Egypt was triggered by the brothers’ reaction to Yosef’s dream, when “his brothers said to him, ‘Do you think you will be our king, that you will dominate us?’ And they continued to hate him over his dreams and his words.”5 Here we see both the resistance to accepting a leader and the emergence of hatred and division within the family.
These elements reappear when Moshe leaves Pharaoh’s palace to assess the experience of the Jewish people. On his second day out of the palace, he attempts to intervene in a fight between two Jews only to be rejected: “Who appointed you as a leader and judge over us? Do you plan to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”6 Moshe saw their resistance to authority and their readiness to share damaging reports about each other and “noda hadavar,” he understood why we needed to endure the exile.7
These issues persist. We are opinionated and principled, and therefore exceptionally challenging to govern and to unify.
This has been exacerbated by the pandemic, as our relationship to authority has become increasingly strained. It is difficult to recall a comparable period where we received such a constant and vigorous stream of public policy pronouncements from both government and communal leaders addressing and affecting every aspect of our lives—social, economic, religious, educational, physical and emotional.
These decisions elicited strong responses, both in support and in opposition. Everyone had an opinion. Some embraced the guidance and prided themselves on responsibly following the rules while others chafed under those rules, seeing them as overly restrictive, not data-driven and selectively enforced. Some were happy to live in communities where precautions were largely ignored, leading to a laxity in abiding by the law, while others were puzzled or even infuriated by the leadership of those communities, causing them to lose faith in the guidance of Torah figures.
Ultimately, the dissimilar approaches taken by various members of the Torah community and its leadership have both created and highlighted points of profound conflict around issues of principle and have created rifts within the community. And while some of the fissures follow predictable lines along the spectrum from right to left, the divisions and the confusion are hardly that neat and predictable as many on all sides have found themselves confused and alienated from leaders and communities to which they had been deeply connected.
We can be confident that this is not God’s desired result of the pandemic, but as things stand it seems to be where we are headed. We must not allow the legacy of Covid to be a more splintered community that is less respectful of the law or more disenfranchised from Torah.
The Path Forward
There is a path forward. Without setting aside the principled independence we come by honestly, we must elevate other values equally critical to our strength as a people and no less a part of our legacy, specifically brotherhood, humility and respect for the law.
Brotherhood: That same counter-cultural and iconoclastic Avraham is characterized by our sages as someone who unified the world.8 Despite his independent posture, Avraham was known as a chassid and an anav,9 possessing an outstandingly generous and humble spirit. The principled Avraham who needed to create some distance from his nephew nevertheless stood by him loyally, risking everything in going to war to rescue him.
The ideological differences and personal conflicts between Avraham and Lot were dramatic. Despite Avraham having taken Lot under his wing to the latter’s great benefit both spiritually and materially, Lot rejected the fundamental values of Avraham and chose the company of Sodom, preferring selfishness and theft over generosity, idolatry over monotheism and licentiousness over modesty. But that did not affect Avraham’s loyalty or affection for him. His ultimate legacy of chesed l’Avraham, his trademark loving kindness, was his prevailing quality.
And it should be ours. Yes, we are feisty Ivrim, but we are also gomlei chasadim bnei gomlei chasadim,10 a nation with a strong legacy of caring commitment. The differences within our broader Torah community—as large as they loomed at certain stages of the pandemic—are trivial in comparison to those between Avraham and Lot. For us, like for Avraham, our love for and loyalty to each other must dominate. That is not an expression of weakness or compromise but a fiercely held value. We may see and do some things differently, but anashim achim anachnu,11 we are brothers after all, and we must cherish that brotherhood.
Humility: Our sages guided us as well toward a humble and genuine respect for authority, even when its decisions are beyond our comprehension. While a healthy society allows and even encourages debate of public policy, it would be arrogant to dismissively reject the positions that are at odds with our perspectives. In a passage reminiscent of the Nishmat prayer’s poignant and poetic description of the human inability to express the extent of our gratitude to God, the Talmud12 offers similar phraseology to describe our inability to fathom the complexity of governmental authority. The combination of issues and factors that must be considered and addressed in their every policy decision cannot easily be recognized and appreciated. The Talmud cites a verse from Proverbs13 to illustrate this idea: “As high as the heavens and as deep as the earth, but the hearts of kings are unfathomable.” Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook, zt”l,14 understood this citation as underscoring the multiplicity of factors that the king must account for and balance, including both the heavenly spiritual concerns and the earthly considerations of economy and health.
Consider for example the myriad factors that influence public health policy. While from the perspective of infectious disease we may focus solely on the mechanics and benefits of closing the channels of viral transmission, public health must consider the secondary results of those closures, including the economic, social and psychological consequences. And while science may define the ideal manner to stop the spread, when people are unable or unwilling to live up to that ideal—what our sages referred to as a gezeirah she’ein rov tzibbur yachol la’amod bo—the resultant poor compliance will produce poor outcomes. The complexity of all these factors is such that there may not be a single correct approach to pandemic restrictions. Add to that the spiritual questions of the impact of these decisions on religious life and the issues become even more complex. While we may clearly see the priority of the values advanced by our posekim, there may be other posekim who see things differently, or there may be communities where the underlying hierarchy of values is different, or there may be situations where the application should be different. Humility should prevent categorical conclusions that degrade the other side and that feed the defiant attitude that has become far too prevalent.
Respect for the Law: “I observe the king’s orders.”15 We cannot allow a partial disagreement to lead to a wholesale disregard for authority. In the Book of Daniel,16 we read how Chananya, Mishael and Azarya, in a repeat of Avraham’s spiritual heroics, defied Nebuchadnezzar’s command to pray to his statue and were therefore cast into a fiery furnace but miraculously spared. The Midrash17 notes that in deference to the king’s authority, the three of them remained in the furnace until Nebuchadnezzar instructed them to come out. This was the king who had ordered them to worship idols and who had just attempted to kill them for their principled defiance! But he nevertheless remained the king, and where his instructions did not conflict with core principles, they needed to be followed.
Irving Bunim was an American Jewish leader during the Second World War who worked tirelessly to secure any papers—legal or illegal—that could get Jews out of Nazi Europe. Yet at the very same time, while other businessmen made exorbitant profits at the expense of the government and the war effort, Bunim and his business partners followed all the laws and rationing regulations to the letter and influenced their friends and associates to follow suit in keeping with the principle of dina d’malchuta dina, the law of the land is supreme.18
During the pandemic, while the posekim of the OU required full compliance with the applicable laws and regulations, there were many who chose to do otherwise. As the pandemic recedes and religious life is able to freely resume, we must get that genie back into the bottle and return as a community to complete respect for the law. “Fear God, my son, as well as the king, and do not mix with those who reject their authority.”19
“Umah Hashem doreish mimcha, ki im asot mishpat v’ahavat chesed v’hatznea lechet im Elokecha? For what does God want from you, other than following the law, loving kindness and to walk humbly with your God?”20
Rabbi Moshe Hauer is executive vice president of the OU.
1. Hilchot Taanit 1:1-3.
2. As articulated in the opening section of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Kol Dodi Dofek.
3. Bereishit Rabbah 42:8.
4. Hadeiah v’Haddibur, vol. 2, no. 15.
5. Bereishit 37:8.
6. Shemot 2:14.
7. Rashi ad loc.
8. Bereishit Rabbah 39.
9. Berachot 6b.
10. Ketubot 8b.
11. Bereishit 13:8.
12. Shabbat 11a.
14. Eyn Ayah, Shabbat, chap. 1, no. 33.
15. Kohelet 8:2.
16. Chap. 3.
17. Tanchuma Noach, no. 10.
18. A Fire in His Soul (New York, 1989), p. 105, pp. 318-9.
19. Mishlei 24:21.
20. Micha 6:8.