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In times of senseless tragedy, God manifests through us

The situation is devastating. An entire country, the most powerful one of its time, brought to its knees, its vast military and economic might no match for the plague that envelops it.

It must have been utterly crushing to be an Egyptian back then.

And yet, horrible as things got, the world at least made sense. God announced that God would bring the plagues, and why God would bring them. The plagues proceeded along their predicted course and were brought to an end by declarations, however fleeting, of repentance and submission. Egypt was overrun by tragedy but at least, according to the biblical narrative, it understood why.

Rabbi Shai Held

Rabbi Shai Held

There is comfort in knowing why — and barring that, in pretending to know why. Not for no reason have Jews traditionally responded to historical tragedies by taking the blame upon themselves — “Because of our sins were we exiled from our land,” as the liturgy has it. It is easier to indict oneself than to admit that the world is chaotic and the suffering that pervades it often senseless.

If the choice is between an insistent affirmation of meaning and a tormented acknowledgment of meaninglessness, many will choose the former, no matter how much cognitive dissonance it may generate.

To follow the spread of the coronavirus is to be reminded again and again of how little we know: who becomes symptomatic and who doesn’t; who is ill for just a few days and who ends up fighting for their life; who lives and who dies. Much of the time, no explanation is available to us, and thus our fear and anxiety only grow.

“The world proceeds along its course,” say the Talmudic Sages. Diseases make no distinction between the righteous and the wicked. At moments like this, the intertwining of the moral order and the natural order, so fundamental to biblical spirituality, seems like (at best) a messianic fantasy to us.

For those of us who are (or aspire to be) believers, there is that always nagging question: How to affirm God and to love God in a world with so much… randomness and useless suffering.

What does God do in a world like this?

In the story we will soon reenact and celebrate, God is revealed through God’s thunderous intervention in history. In the story we are now living through, God is revealed — if at all — through small and often subtle acts of human responsiveness to the sufferings of others.

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Deuteronomy tells us that God loves the stranger, manifesting that love by providing the stranger with food and clothing (10:18) and then charges us to love the stranger, too (10:19). The message implicit in the juxtaposition of these two verses may be: How does God love the stranger? God’s love is manifest through our own.

We must become God’s hands. When 30,000 medical professionals come out of retirement and risk their lives to save the lives of others, they become God’s means of operating in this broken, terrifying world.

The present moment leaves us with no choice but to dwell in radical uncertainty. We may wish for certainty but we will not find it. A theology of love does not pretend to understand why the world is as it is; it focuses not on explanation but on response. It seeks not to justify God but to manifest God.

Our world is very far from the world of Moses and Pharaoh. That was a world in which God needed little assistance. To the extent that we can still talk about God now, it is a world in which God has chosen to need our assistance.

The moments of self-dedication and of human connection that ensue may be the closest we can come to seeing God in our world.

This is one in a series of pieces on Passover during coronavirus. Read the rest of the series here.

Rabbi Shai Held is a theologian, scholar, educator as well as President, Dean, and Chair in Jewish Thought at Hadar, a Jewish educational institute in New York City, where he also directs the Center for Jewish Leadership and Ideas.


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