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Why is the “war on Corona” a war on God?
Parashat Ki Tavo is devoted largely to the tokhehah, a warning of punishment that will befall Israel if they ignore God’s will, and many if not most of the verses in this long passage are devoted to diseases and affliction of body and soul, and most of the others are devoted to devastation wreaked upon the economy.
Professor Moshe Benovitz sees the parallels between Parashat Ki Tavo and our current moment dealing with the Corona Pandemic and reminds us that both the good and bad ultimately come from God.
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When our leaders and government officials use the phrase “war on corona”, I cringe and shudder. Like most people, I want the population to be protected from the effects of the corona virus, and like most people, I want the economy to get back to normal and I want scientists to come up with a vaccine. But to me, the phrase “war on corona” sounds like a war against God, like the tower of Babel.
This is for two reasons. The first reason is that I see the hand of God in the corona epidemic. Parashat Ki Tavo is devoted largely to the tokhehah, a warning of punishment that will befall Israel if they ignore God’s will, and many if not most of the verses in this long passage are devoted to diseases and affliction of body and soul, and most of the others are devoted to devastation wreaked upon the economy.
Now it is unfashionable to say so in liberal religious circles these days, but I believe that God is responsible for the good and bad in existence as the parashah tells us; in the words of Isaiah and the morning prayer: “he forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates everything”, good and evil.
For me, God, whose sacred name Y-H-W-H derives from the Hebrew root meaning existence, is by definition the power and the will behind all of existence and all of reality. It may be presumptuous to say we know for certain that this or that specific motivation underlies God’s actions in the universe, but I think it is our responsibility to try to ascertain God’s will to the best of our ability, even if it is guesswork, and to adjust our lives accordingly. In the words of Job: “Shall we indeed accept good from God, and not accept adversity?” (Job 2:10). And while the Torah specifically gives us permission, and even commands us, to do our best to heal ourselves of God-sent illness and to protect ourselves from God-sent persecution, to the point that saving lives takes priority over all the mitzvot in the Torah, this does not mean that bad things are not heaven sent. It means that God wills both the pain and the remedy, the disease and the cure, the threat and the salvation. He sends us the corona virus and he inspires scientists to develop a vaccine. It’s our task to try to figure out why.
The other reason I see the war on corona as a war on God is that for all the devastation it wreaks, corona is to my mind the best example of God’s sacred presence that our generation has ever experienced.
While Parashat Ki Tavo, and the Torah in general, indicate that disease and plagues are sent by God, one verse in Exodus stressed by the Passover Haggadah insists that the plague that spread among the Egyptians, killing their firstborn, in a sense was God: “For I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the Lord” (Exodus 12:12).
God did not send an angel or a Seraph or a messenger to slay the firstborn of Egypt and protect those of Israel, it was he himself who did so. Most people who believe that God is present in our world and interacts with us believe in theory that he is a spirit and a power and a will, rather than a human-like figure or character. But when we pray, we often picture him as a human-like figure, or a power with certain human qualities.
The corona offers us an alternative image, closer to the truth in my view. Not only in wreaking corona, but in all that he does, God is invisible, powerful, clever, full of surprises, seemingly indiscriminate and yet oddly discerning, at times cruel, and yet often merciful: in protecting the young, for example, and many of those who help themselves and take precautions.
May we learn to recognize God’s presence in the extraordinary world in which we find ourselves, and ponder its meaning. Shavua Tov!
Moshe Benovitz is Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He is the author of Kol Nidre: Studies in the Development of Rabbinic Votive Institutions (Atlanta 1998) and several volumes of comprehensive critical commentary on sections of the Talmud, as well as numerous scholarly articles on various aspects of Talmudic scholarship and rabbinic history, including oaths and vows, liturgy, and Jewish festivals.