Speak Your Truth: Moving Forward From Coronavirus

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Adam Gopnik recently warned that we react to stressors such as the novel coronavirus with ideas we already held before, a worry I too have shared (although in looking for that link, I found this one, suggesting I’m also more locked into my own idees fixes than I’d like to think).  It’s part of the reason I try to find prior sources for my ideas; I may be picking ideas that fit my preferred narrative, but it’s at least a narrative important people have already said.

Berakhot 54a tells us the Rabbis made two decrees in reaction to the advent of the Saduccean heresy. First, they added a phrase to the response to blessings in the Temple, to fortify belief in a World to Come, an idea the Saducees apparently denied. Second, they told people to greet each other using Gd’s Name. For precedent, they pointed to Boaz in Rut 2;4 (and Shavuot is 17 days away!), who greeted his workers Hashem imakhem, Gd be with you, the workers then responding yevarekhekha Hashem, Gd should bless you.

Lest we think Boaz got it wrong, the Mishnah also notes the angel’s greeting to Gidon, Shofetim 6;12, Hashem imekha, Gd is with you. Although Berakhot 63a thinks making it a common and casual practice breaches the preferable awe and reverence for Gd’s Name, the rise of the Saducceans created an et la’asot, a time where the religious needs of the moment shift us from our usual priorities.

R. Reichman’s notes of R. Soloveitchik, zt”l’s shiurim on Berakhot say he thought they were reacting to the Saducees’ denial of hashgaha peratit, providence. The Sages thought the proper reaction to denying Gd’s involvement was for Jews of faith to regularly articulate their sense of Gd’s Presence in the world.

In the introduction to his book on the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy (in Hebrew and English), my teacher R. Ezra Bick offers a reason for this reaction. He came to the issue from a different direction than his teacher, the Rav, was trying to explain Gd’s guarantee of a positive response whenever the Jews as a community recited the Thirteen Attributes.

He suggests the way we speak impacts the world more than we realize. The speech itself, he says, in fact enhances Gd’s Presence in the world. Just by saying Gd is rahum, hanun, etc., we make those aspects of Gd more manifest in the world. Were the Rav to have agreed, it would mean the proper response to a Saduceean denial of Gd’s Presence was to bring Gd more in the world, by speaking of Gd more often (like building settlements in response to terror attacks aimed at removing Jews from places in Israel).

If that seems too metaphysical, recall that Rambam, the paragon of a rationalist Judaism, called for recognizing times of trouble as a call from Gd to change and improve. The denial of providence by the Saducees made attention to that area of faith a good candidate for change and improvement, by giving more voice to our faith than usual.

I suggest the same can be true now. A good friend brought to my attention an article on Tablet, where Prof. Shaul Magid sees a contrast between hareidim, more “right-wing” or “traditionalist” Jews, and the Centrist or Modern Orthodox in their sense of faith. Many of the Modern or Centrist, he said, don’t actually believe the simple and plain claims of the religion, and their Gd-empty reactions to the coronavirus laid this bare.

I hope he is wrong. One way to prove him wrong is to resuscitate our Gd talk, to bring Gd more vocally into our lives. All of us, not just rabbis or the more punctilious among us.

Before I give examples, I pause to note the complexity of the topic of divine providence, the many acceptable versions of Orthodox belief in Gd’s providence. Some believe Gd is involved in just about every occurrence on earth, others think Gd largely has set up the earth to work according to rules embedded in it from Creation.

All along the continuum, as far as I know, the views agree there is meaningful hashgaha, Gd’s involvement and oversight, however expressed, however explained philosophically. (Much of that depends on how one reads Rambam, understanding Mishneh Torah fully and how it fits with what he says in the Guide.) I am not trying to push a particular perspective, only of the value of speaking and sharing your perspective, whatever it is, a perspective I think must include some connection between our actions and the way the world works.

think, for example, the most rationalist versions of Rambam still have to say Gd created a world that responds to people’s sins and good deeds. Rambam did object to any idea of change in Gd, making it impossible to say Gd would “react” to our sins and good deeds. For those adamant about avoiding any talk of Gd reacting, the second paragraph of Shema would inform us nature itself rewards or punishes observance, rain and bounty should we do well, or—should we turn to other powers– drought and exile (I’ve long wondered why we see that as more rationalist, but no need to press the point.)

More power to them, let them say that, as long as they start saying it. Here’s a late-breaking example I’m substituting for my original examples. Last Friday, I heard Governor Cuomo speak about New York State’s having finally gotten ahead of the coronavirus, that we’re now finally in control, our destiny in our own hands.

I think Governor Cuomo has handled this crisis as a dedicated public servant, whose uppermost concern has been the health and safety of New Yorkers. In a later part of the press conference, he did throw in a “thank Gd.” But when I heard him say those first words, I winced. I thought, “how much better would it have been had he said, ‘Gd has helped us reduce the rate of the illnesses, and with Gd’s help, our future looks a lot clearer than it did. If Gd grants, we seem to be closer to putting ourselves back to our former day to day lives.”

I know, I know. As governor of a pluralistic state in a pluralistic society, he can’t speak like that, even were he to believe it. But we can. And every time we hear people who do not speak that way, we can note it, internally and to our friends and loved ones.

From another angle taking us to the same conclusion: Rashi to Bereshit notes Ya’akov and Yosef stood out for the extent to which they invoked Gd’s Name. In Yosef’s case, Bereshit 39;3, Potiphar, an Egyptian idolater, was the one who noticed it. Potiphar saw Hashem imo, Gd was with him, because (Rashi says) shem shamayim, the Name of Heaven, was shagur be-fiv, common in his mouth.

It’s just words, you might think, where I believe the examples show us our words bring Gd more into our lives, psychologically—we are what we discuss, what we make the fabric of our days—or metaphysically. Our pluralistic society has taken us out of the habit, and/or made it seem too similar to religious fundamentalists who push their views on others.

I say, if we allow ourselves to be lulled into leaving Gd out of our lives, we’ll be leaving Gd out of our lives. Desperate times call for desperate measures. In a world where most around us see only the “natural” side– the patterns of regularity Gd inserted to invite us to partner in le-ovdah u-le-shomrah, in working and guarding the world– we need to be more careful to express our sense of the other side, there is also a Gd, a Creator Whose impact is felt. The more we say it, the more we ourselves will know it; the less we do, the less we will.

In Al HaTeshuvah (On Repentance in English), the Rav explains the necessity of vidui, articulating our sins, in similar terms. There, we might be tempted to deny sin or its seriousness. Here, we can push Gd to the side. The answer in each case is to say it, out loud, often.

Hashlekh al Hashem yehavekha, ve-Hu ye-khalkelekha, cast your burden on the Lord, and He will sustain you. As I leave the coronavirus to turn to issues of building shuls—with the hope and prayer Hashem will soon return us to our communal lives, and  we will have the wisdom to recreate them in their best versions– I hope we will heed Tehillim 55;23’s advice, and make sure to articulate our reliance on Gd to bring success to our efforts and release us from this soon, and effectively, so we not have further rounds of it.

Because in speaking of Gd, I hope, pray, and believe Gd has taught us, lies one fairly simple road to a much better world.

About Gidon Rothstein

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