On April 18, 2018, the New York Times reported the mind-boggling findings of an international scientific study that today we can only begin to comprehend its implications: trillions of viruses constantly circle the globe in an atmospheric air stream with “some 800 million viruses cascading onto every square meter of the planet daily… Mostly thought of as infectious agents, viruses are much more than that. It’s hard to overstate the central role that viruses play in the world: They’re essential to everything from our immune system to our gut microbiome, to the ecosystems on land and sea, to climate regulation… Viruses contain a vast diverse array of unknown genes — and spread them to other species.
This potential for inter-species transfer became infamous following the World Health Organization’s report on December 31, 2019 of a pneumonia of unknown cause, discovered in the Chinese city of Wuhan among vendors in the Huanan Seafood market that was subsequently identified as “a novel coronavirus.” By March 11, 2020, the coronavirus was declared a pandemic with no cure, and by this writing, infected over one million people, killed thousands, forcing extended home quarantine as self-defense, and crippling the world’s economy.
While the world’s media focuses on the how, what and where of the implications of coronavirus, the Jewish approach, in addition to monitoring it’s epidemiology, halachic implications and promulgating the importance of carefully following the protective health measures – is to try to understand why such a pandemic occurs, and specifically in our generation.
Rabbi Reuven Leuchter, in the first Olami Zoom bunker shiur after the onset of the coronavirus, cautioned we are incapable of knowing the calculations of G-d, yet said we still need to try to understand why G-d might bring bring such a pandemic to the world. Rav Leuchter suggested an idea, later echoed and shared by many rabbis throughout the world and embraced as a core Jewish explanation for the coronavirus:
We are a generation accustomed to planning and carrying through on every aspect of our life. Whether in business, learning, study, travel, banking, shopping, recreation, simchas, doctor and dentist appointments and procedures, entertainment – you name it – from the get-go to night, all accomplished with our on-time, every-time mentality. In short, we think and act as if we are in total control of our lives.
That was until a mere two weeks ago when we became progressively more quarantined that we not only can’t plan for tomorrow, we don’t even know what tomorrow will bring. The medical systems and governments that we instinctively rely upon for the quick-fix solutions and cures are not in sight. They themselves are struggling to cope with medical overloads, and a hemorrhaging economy. Doctors are forced to resolve painful questions of triage of whom to connect to the limited ventilators. The longest stock market rally in history abruptly reversed to the steepest decline in history, forcing economists to wonder just how long and difficult this downturn will last, and how will we dig out of it.
Our world was upended and we now realize that really we have no control over anything. We’ve lost our taken-for granted intimacy, hugs/handshakes/high-fives, visits to mom and dad, grandma and grandpa, kids and grandkids, and buddies, and are relegated to the confines of our homes, watching reruns of morbid statistics, rooting for the curves to flatten and descend, praying for a panacea to restore our freedom.
What is a solution?
Our rabbis teach that we first need to acknowledge that it is G-d who is running this world. That is reassuring. He created the universe and created life and humanity looking to build a relationship with us. Drifting from that cognition, sometimes we get a wake-up call. That call is an opportunity. To tap into our souls and forge / strengthen a relationship with our Creator.
There are many paths to do that. Right now, we at Olami propose a concrete way, together, to heal our distance, celebrate our Jewish legacy, and acknowledge Who is in control: Let’s observe Shabbat. In the words of Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe (Alei Shor, Vol. II p. 383):
Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch writes [in his work The Nineteen Letters] that the root of the prohibition against melachah (creative work) on Shabbat is that man’s control over the universe is relinquished on Shabbat. Only God, Who created the universe, is in charge on this day, to the extent that man has no permission to do anything at all that is creative or transformative, even a simple act like pressing a switch to turn on a light.
When Shabbat descends on the world and we participate in its observance, festive meals, songs, prayers, and all types of delights, we are connecting to one of the strongest and most meaningful Jewish forces and experiences. Shabbat is the cornerstone of Jewish belief. When we observe Shabbat, we intrinsically testify that God created the universe and that He supervises and guides the history of mankind.
Let’s reach out to our students via the Olami campaign #ThankGodItsShabbat to inspire and encourage them, and teach them how to celebrate Shabbat. Help them navigate through these times. To take time out to pause, to reflect, to pray, to have quality family time and to benefit from the beautiful opportunity that Shabbat presents us with.