Can this be God’s will?
The video message arrived as an attachment from a trusted source. I opened it and began watching. The scenes of smogless skies, clear waters, and lush fauna served as a reminder that a world was being reborn around us, and that our stay-at-home quarantine was having the side benefit of giving Mother Earth a sabbatical, the chance to catch her breath. The beauty of the world around us could serve as a silver lining of this challenging time.
The second video message arrived within a couple of hours. It came from a name I knew, though someone I hadn’t connected with in quite some time. I opened it and began watching. It depicted similar scenes of smogless skies, clear waters and lush fauna, with facts about how much cleaner our world is today than at any other time in recent history. The video, however, was not a PSA for climate change. Its final scene was a man with the title of “Rabbi” trying to reassure me that the current pandemic was God’s will, part of the divine plan to renew the earth.
I was surprised, to say the least. Did the sender of the second video actually think that I would find comfort in its message? Have I ever given off the sense that I embrace and am comforted by a God who would will the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent people to advance a plan? What then could I say about God’s role in the Holocaust? About an innocent pedestrian hit by a drunk driver? About a cancer victim? About a parent losing a child? About a natural disaster that claims dozens or hundreds?
I don’t need to rely on theologians for my answer about the nature of God, instructive though their perspectives may be. Buber, Heschel, Wiesel and Kushner (with all due respect) don’t know anything more than you or I do when it comes to God. The rabbis across the centuries have offered many paths to faith, some that even stand in conflict with one another. God is, after all, infinitely unknowable. What theologians have going for them is that they think about the question of God long enough to develop consistency. Want to be a theologian? Work at it, test your opinion against theological questions, and be consistent!
Somewhere along the line of time, well before The Wizard of Oz, we started referring to God as perfect, all-knowing and all-powerful. While God does credit God’s self in the Torah as the Creator, God never uses these other descriptors for God’s self. God changes God’s mind, God admits to making mistakes, God learns and grows. At best, God says God is compassionate and loving, truthful and holy, and more powerful than other gods; at worst, jealous and judgmental, begrudging and impatient. The notion that God is all-powerful and all-good can’t withstand the test of consistency by my standards of goodness and justice. The notion that God is all-powerful but not all-good is untenable personally.
These weeks on the Jewish calendar would be a challenge to Jewish theology without a pandemic raging around us. From the death of Aaron’s sons for their “foreign” sacrifice to the command to be “holy” because “I the Lord your God am holy”, from Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) to Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day), it can be so tempting to conclude that all is connected in some divine plan that necessitates God‘s intervention at certain times but doesn’t warrant God‘s intervention at others. I cannot and will not place my hope in an omnipotent god who requires the sacrifice of innocents or matyrs for the sake of learning lessons, realizing dreams, or cleaning the air. God promised us: No more floods at God’s direction to destroy the earth.
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be floods.
Personally, I’ve come to the conclusion that God is perfectly imperfect, as are we. God purposefully gave us free will and God intentionally introduced an element of chance into our existence. Without this measure of unpredictability, we’d be as naive as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, without the ability to make choices that reflect God’s glory (and goodness) in the world. As our sages taught, “Everything is in God’s hands except for the fear of God.” God controls everything except the choices we make. Those choices have long-ranging consequences that God will not control, and those same choices can reflect well or poorly on God. But in God’s love and goodness, God has given us the infinite potential to learn, grow and change course. It’s God’s hope that we see the God-given strength within to persevere, to live, to celebrate and to spread our hope.
We have been divinely inspired to create a way of living that reveals God’s goodness in an imperfect world. It’s that very imperfection that presents us with the opportunity to rise to the level of the divine. I will appreciate that which I perceive as miraculous without understanding what merits such grace. I will bemoan that which I perceive as tragic without attempting to explain, justify or defend. I will hold onto my faith that the goodness of God, as reflected in the actions of others and in my own choices, will raise us all towards a higher plane of meaning and love.
God is hope, faith, and goodness, along with the strength to live our lives accordingly in a perfectly imperfect world.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Counting the Days of Omer and Covid-19
More than a month ago, a friend asked if I am journaling every day. She thought it would “really be something” to capture this unprecedented time and then look back at my words a year from now. She is certainly right. But it seems I cannot write; after five and a half weeks of stay-at-home, I have two entries, each no more than a paragraph, sentences drifting off in the middle.
I have planned to write this post for weeks now. Every day I write little pieces of it in my mind, but then, before I even begin, I decide that it has all been said already: The times are hard; look for the silver lining. We have great sorrow; still we try to be grateful. What else is there to say?
I realized today that what has actually kept me from writing is that I cannot comprehend the texture of this time. I simply cannot wrap my head around this time of languishment. (I remember feeling this way in college, reading Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. If you also read it, you understand.)
We Jews are so good at understanding time as a container, a useful vessel for emotion, striving, and cataloguing: Shabbat, 10 Days of Awe, Three Weeks, 49 days of Omer.
Yet it is hard to understand what is happening in this particular time. If there is indeed a time for everything under heaven, I do not think it includes this pandemic. Do we think there is nothing new under the sun? We must think again. We have never before known COVID-19.
The days slip by. I think Sunday is Monday. I go to bed early or very late. I wake in the middle of the night worrying about small details, my sleepy brain unable to go to my real concerns. I breathe deeply and smile and model optimism. Just under the surface of each day, however, is an existentialist anxiety. Beyond questions of when will it end and how will we cope lies the theological impossibility: What does it mean? Here we are, full stride in the midst of it, and we have absolutely no idea what it all means. Hence, anxiety.
We are taught to face anxiety with a good dose of gratitude. Gratitude, I can do. I am grateful for many gifts: walking in my neighborhood in the spring time,
practicing yoga virtually (I have finally been able to follow my own mantra: ‘Stay on my own mat’ – no one else to look at!), rediscovering the pleasures of my kitchen – inventing new recipes like carmelized pearl onions and cauliflower soup with red peppers. I made Sharon Rappaport‘s mother’s Passover popovers for the first time in years. (Thank you, Estelle, they are delicious!)
But I know that these months are not just an extended retreat from the world. No matter how content I might be during hours at home, no matter how I seek out reasons to be thankful, the entire world around me fills my heart and mind with sadness and concern.
I have completely good health. My kids are all safely at their homes, jobs intact, healthy and in good spirits. My in-laws are in their own homes, tucked away and safe.
But across my driveway, our beloved Millie is recovering from a fierce bout with the virus. She is a certified nurse aide at a geriatric center and had no choice but to go to work even when she didn’t feel completely well. No fever? Come to work. The Center is – like so many caregiving facilities – desperately short-staffed. Millie is an hourly worker who needs each paycheck. And she is a dedicated compassionate worker who now worries about the residents who are missing her special care and attention.
Across the airwaves, I speak with our congregants who are ill, worried about their family members, or grieving losses. I receive notices from the three synagogues to which I belong as well as from the Rabbinical Assembly. I wring my hands thinking about Rabbi Scheff officiating at four funerals within a 24 hour span of time (and today in this monsoon). I speak to our congregants who describe literally and metaphorically standing on the other side of a pane of glass, trying to connect to their loved ones… trying to connect to their own grief. In the mourners, we sense a shock that goes well beyond the usual experience of bereavement. This precious OJC community will have work to do when this is over. The work of healing and rebuilding will require as much courage as this work of sustaining community in the crisis.
Covid-19 has stolen so much from us. Children have lost the ability to play with friends, teens have lost their clubs and sports, young adults have lost graduations, wedding dates, promises of summer jobs. Adults have lost health, jobs, the ability to care for our vulnerable family members, holiday gatherings, structure, and a sense of security. We simply do not know how to understand this passage of time.
And so we will count the Omer and remember the lessons of counting up: That every day is a gift. That we count up to appreciate and remember. That Judaism and community offer us structure when the world is chaotic.
This year, it looks like we’ll be counting toward Shavuot and just keep on counting. When will it end and how will we cope? I do not know, but I know that it will end and we will cope.
What does it mean? We will not ever know. But we can learn something about what it means each day as we count the Omer. We can say thank you to God for the goodness in our life. We can reach out each day to someone who is suffering emotionally, spiritually or physically from this plague. When there is no meaning, Judaism teaches us to make meaning.
Stay safe and healthy in mind, body and soul, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill