A few days ago, a member of my congregation asked me a direct and painful question: “How could God let such a horrific plague as coronavirus befall our earth? Can you help me understand?”
Can you help me understand?
Setting aside for the moment the ten mythological plagues we recalled at our recent seders, ours is certainly not the first generation to ask such a question. Believers of every age have been compelled to reconcile their faith in God with the realities of tragedy and suffering. Disasters of humanity’s own making, and those often labeled “acts of God,” have long played havoc with our trust in a God of goodness.
The book of Job offers the classic biblical answer to unimaginable travail: that God’s ways are beyond human comprehension. The rabbis of the Roman destruction softened that response preaching that the righteous who suffered on earth would find their reward in the world to come.
Maimonides, in his twelfth-century Guide for the Perplexed, claimed that suffering occurs not out of God’s design. Evil, he insisted, enters the world through natural forces and human ignorance and immorality. In post-Enlightenment Europe, Hermann Cohen likewise suggested that while God established the laws of nature and a set of universal ethics by which humanity was bound, God would not intervene to prevent nature from running its course or take back the gift of free will no matter how it might be abused.
I would believe our current predicament results from that tragic interplay of natural forces and human failings. It is not, as Pharaoh’s magicians claimed of the plagues upon Egypt, “the finger of God.”
But such answers, if compelling, explain only where God is absent, not where God is present. And God is present.
Rabbi Avraham Yaakov Friedman of the Ukranian town of Sadgora used to say: “God never ceases to address us, through both the wonders of nature and human ingenuity. Those fashioned in the likeness of their Maker take part in the act of Creation. Their inventions, too, are part of the Divine utterance.”
The Rebbe of Sadgora had one disciple who accepted each of his master’s teachings as an article of faith. But this particular lesson, the student had great trouble comprehending. As he looked around at the world and some of what humanity had wrought, he could not believe it all Divinely inspired. So, with great trepidation, the young man went to see the rebbe.
“My teacher,” he began. “Please forgive me. I mean no disrespect, but I must ask you a question.”
“Please do,” answered Avraham Yaakov, “I am always grateful for questions.”
“You have taught us that God speaks in all things,” the student continued. “And while I understand how that might be with the works of nature, the devices of humanity seem to me quite another matter. Consider the railroads that bisect the land and pollute the air with smoke. And the telephone that distances us from our neighbors so that we no longer speak face-to-face. And the telegraph that reduces speech – the most magical of gifts – to simple dashes and dots. What can God mean us to learn through these human follies?”
The rabbi laughed. “Even in these the Holy One bestows wisdom upon us,” he answered. “For those who delay miss their train, teaching us to seize the moment or miss the opportunity. The telephone, through which we can communicate over long distances, reminds us that what we say in one place invariably is heard in another, whether we intend it or not. And as for the telegraph, it teaches us that every word counts and every word has value. And so, you see, even in these human inventions God addresses us.”
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A beautiful message for this moment. So many of us feel alone right now. But we are not. For God calls to us in all things. Those mechanical innovations the rabbi’s disciple at first despised, offer blessings to us the rabbi himself could never have imagined. Think how the telephone connects us with loved ones and friends from whom, for their safety and ours, we must separate ourselves. And consider how the telegraph’s dots and dashes constitute the basis of the technology we rely on for FaceTime and Skype and Zoom, allowing us to see one another, even if we cannot reach out and touch one another the way we might yearn to. And certainly, we know just how much we value the words we consequently are able to hear and the smiles we are able to see.
The Rebbe of Sadgora was right: God does speak to us in all things. In the scientific efforts that will ultimately bring us relief from this awful virus and protection against it. In the courage of those in the medical world who are caring for the sick, and of those performing the essential civic tasks that keep our cities, states and country functioning even at risk to their own health and well-being. In the concern of loved ones, friends and neighbors checking in on us. When we count these innumerable acts of goodness in the world around us, we know that we are not alone. For God calls to us in all things.
Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York.