Last year, a friend’s healthy teenage son died suddenly. Her intense grief was compounded, she told me later, by confusion. Why had this happened? She sought out various rabbis and rebbes, made appointments with teachers and mentors, and searched their minds for insight. If they could help her take meaning from her son’s passing, she said, she would find some peace.
We humans have a primordial need to know. For the most part—as long as life coasts along as we expect—we manage to satisfy the need in measured ways. But when something happens that upends our reality, we feel great urgency to unravel the enigma. We need to comprehend the significance we trust is there. If only we could make sense of the madness, we could (try at least) to accept it with some equanimity.
Most of us are now trying to make sense of the coronavirus pandemic, and as Jews who believe that life and death and everything in between are functions of a deliberate, divine program, the desire to understand—especially with so much time on our hands—is preoccupying. Alas, this particular crisis seems to offer no obvious, easy takeaways. In fact, the lessons seem utterly counterintuitive.
What are we, Jews who are commanded to pray together, to learn from a situation that forces us not to pray together? What are we, Jews who are taught to honor our parents, to learn from the fact that their lives now depend on our keeping them at a distance? The message of this plague is so pathetically out of step with our narrative as Torah-observant Jews, it has roundly brought us to our knees, forcing us to concede to the inscrutable G-d who commands us to know him: Touché.
Humbled though we are, we still can’t shake the need to understand. We continue to scrutinize, to scratch at the surface and dig a little deeper. If nothing else, this novel coronavirus has yielded a steady crop of ideas and commentary. Not an hour passes without messages on social media offering perspective. Many are calming, others humorous. But in the theater of the absurd that our world has suddenly become, I sensed my friend’s angst: I needed an answer, at least one, that could help me square the circle.
Then came a WhatsApp message from a rabbi in Israel: He described the dilemma faced by a Chasidic doctor who could not wear his protective mask as required because his beard was in the way. Chasidic Jews—for religious, mystical, and spiritual reasons—are very careful about not shaving, or even trimming, their beards. So this doctor consulted his rabbi about his quandary. At first, the rabbi advised him to try different masks, but nothing worked. The doctor returned to his rabbi. He wanted to quit his position in the hospital.
The doctor was certain that his decision to give up his position was the appropriate response. He was surprised that the rabbi disagreed, rejected his proposal out of hand, and advised him to remove his beard. The rabbi explained what should have been obvious: Saving a life is at the very top of Jewish priorities, so the doctor was to remain in place, and do whatever necessary to continue his life-saving work.
At first, the rabbi’s advice didn’t sit well with the doctor. Wearing a beard is, externally, the mark of a Chasidic Jew. But, the rabbi pointed out, this wasn’t about the doctor. The beard, prayers with the minyan, and all the rituals of our daily routines, he reminded the doctor, are mitzvahs, G-d’s commands. And one of His greatest mitzvahs is the commandment to save life, and to prioritize that over and above most other mitzvahs.
Maybe there’s the rub in this crisis: a virus that has forced us out of our comfortable habits, reminding us that our religious routines are not, after all, about serving ourselves. Barred from so much of what has come to shape and define our Jewish lifestyle, we’ve been made to step back from the coziness we’ve cultivated with practices that we forget did not originate with us.
Perhaps the distance that the virus has placed between us and the Divine prescriptions that we have bent to our own will, will have the effect of turning each one of us into the baal-teshuvah, the returning Jew. When this is over, then, like the returning Jew, we will come back to every mitzvah with the awe of revelation—our response to the novel call of the ineffable G-d.