In a Talmudic parable, the sages tell us of a time that the great Rabbi Akiva was traveling along the road and approached a town where he decided that he would seek lodging for the night. Not a place or person in the town would give Rabbi Akiva a place to rest his head for the evening, to which he replied to his companions: “Whatever the Holy One does, He does for good.” Rabbi Akiva went on his way to spend the night in an open field with a rooster, a donkey, and a candle as his only possessions. In the night, a gust of wind came, and extinguished the candle. Soon after that, a cat approached and ate the rootster. Finally, a lion came upon Rabbi Akiva’s donkey, and devoured the animal. Still, Rabbi Akiva told his companions: “Whatever the Holy One does, He does for good.” Rabbi Akiva was now alone with his companions. That night, an army came into the city that had denied him lodging, and took the entirety of its population into captivity. Rabbi Akiva had no candle to give away his location, and no noisy donkey or rooster to make a sound that could be heard by the soldiers. Rabbi Akiva turned to his companions and said, “Didn’t I tell you, ‘whatever the Holy One does, He does for good’? (B. Ber 60b-61a).
As we all know, we are living in what seem to be unprecedented times. The novel coronavirus, which we now so intimately know as COVID-19, has taken over many of our minds, and some of our bodies as well. There is no need to sugarcoat the fact that people are suffering, whether it be emotionally, spiritually or physically. Fear of the unknown while sitting in our homes can take over our lives. WIthout our regular physical interactions to ease our minds, it can be a time of great spiritual turmoil for many. What is happening? Why is this happening? What will life be like afterward? Why? If we put ourselves in Rabbi Akiva’s shoes, we are laying in the open field, our candle has blown out, leaving us in complete darkness, and our rooster and donkey have just been eaten by wild animals. This is the time when many do the most questioning. How could G-d let this happen, and what did we do to deserve this? Rabbi Akiva was confident that G-d had a long-term plan, and all of the suffering and hardship that he was prescribed to endure in the short-term, was actually for the best. In what seemed like a dire situation, Rabbi Akiva was actually being protected by G-d. Is this to mean we are not meant to question? As we have talked about before, the word “Israel” quite literally means to wrestle or struggle with G-d. So, it would seem that questioning, wondering, and doubting are all very Jewish ways to handle the situation. If we look closely at Rabbi Akiva’s words, he does not say that everything G-d does is or feels good, but that it is all for good. When the soldiers stormed the town that had denied him, Rabbi Akiva’s macro view of G-d’s good intentions had come to fruition.
While parables can be quite nice and fitting, they do not always calm our anxieties or questions about G-d. it is quite fathomable that perhaps we cannot quite even begin to imagine G-d, or G-d’s intentions or actions. In fact, G-d is so unknowable to human beings that to even begin to try and understand would be impossible. Remember back to Moses in Exodus 33:18 when he says to G-d, “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” In Exodus 33:20, G-d says to Moses, “‘Thou canst not see my face, for man shall not see Me and live.’” How can man fathom the unfathomable? My mentor, Rabbi Norman Mendel, would commonly refer to the Shema prayer when people were having difficulty with G-d. “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad-Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.” Rabbi Mendel would say that perhaps we can interpret “One” to mean “One at a time.” G-d can mean different things to us at various places and points in our lives. Rabbi Jacob Staub likes to imagine G-d as some sort of air that is everywhere, both external and internal to us all. He reminds us that the Hebrew word, “ru’ah,” means both spirit and wind. Perhaps everything is interconnected. Rabbi Staub describes how he asks G-d “What is the invitation in this?” when troubling things occur. The situation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic is certainly a time during which we can all ask G-d, no matter our interpretation of The Presence, “What is the invitation in this?”
Are we now invited (or semi-ordered) to stay at home, or to “socially distance?” Is this a time to think about all that we could be doing outside of our own home, and how many of our favorite factory outlets and restaurants are closed? Perhaps we are mourning the suspension of our favorite team’s basketball or hockey games. What about our own conception of “shalom bayit,” or peace in the home? Is this not a time to look at our spouse or partner in the eyes, and share a genuine conversation and laugh without distraction? Have we actually taken a real moment and played with our children enough? Judaism takes place as much in the home (if not more) as it does in a synagogue. We can strive toward a peaceful, communicative, and understanding home during these trying times. We have no choice but to appreciate and surround ourselves with those closest to us, and to work toward a harmonious life within the confines of our own residences.
Perhaps this is also an invitation for our own planet to begin to heal. As human beings have retreated into their homes, have we not seen a decrease in air pollution in quarantined countries? Will our planet begin to heal and be an example for some of the relationships in our own lives? We can only look away for so long. This is a time to examine our own relationships with our planet, with our souls, and with one another.
This is also an invitation to appreciate and respect. The doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, and so many others who are putting their own health at risk for the healing of others is truly inspiring. The sages of the school of Rabbi Ishmael thought that Heaven had given physicians permission to heal. This inference is based upon Exodus 21:19, which says: “He shall cause him to be thoroughly healed” (B. Ber 60a). It seems to me that all healthcare workers are doing the work of The Heavens during this pandemic. If we are not healthcare workers, we can refer to Leviticus 19:18, and “…love thy neighbor as thyself.” This “Golden Rule of Judaism” essentially tells us to treat others how we would like to be treated. Staying home seems to be the best way to love our neighbors right now. A phone call, FaceTime, or a Zoom session is showing much more love than a handshake or a hug currently. While the healthcare workers fight to keep sick people alive, we can do our part to keep less people sick.
On Friday nights, we often recite a prayer responsively which says, “Disturb us, Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency; Make us dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with the peace of ignorance, the quietude which arises from a shunning of the horror, the defeat, the bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans” (Mishkan T’Filah p. 55). Most of us have been disturbed, ruffled, and shocked with the current state of the world. Has the greater world become complacent in the face of human and planetary crisis? Have we ourselves become complacent? This is, of course, open to your interpretation and opinion. If G-d does indeed send us messages, this appears to be quite a powerful one. Our job is to take the message or invitation, and do with it what we can in a constructive manner.
I hope that as we eventually peer and step outside of our houses, we will look up from our phones and greet one another with a gratitude that was perhaps lost before. I hope we never take for granted a pat on the shoulder from a friend, the kissing of a grandchild, or even praying in a shared space. I hope we can hit the reset button and fix some of what had been broken, or allow what was broken to begin to heal itself.
As the dust settles, perhaps we can all begin to anticipate the beauty that will come from the seemingly broken. We can all look to the day when we will collectively hear Rabbi Akiva’s voice asking, “Did I not tell you that ‘whatever the Holy One does, He does for good?’”
In the meantime, I wish all of those suffering r’fuah sh’leimah, a complete healing of the body and spirit. Let our suffering, both physical and mental be the means to a beautiful and good new beginning. For now, let us enjoy laying in the open field.