COVID-19: God’s Warning

Rabbi Israel Chait 

Written by a student

Maimonides addresses the Torah response to calamity:

It is a positive commandment from the Torah to cry out and to sound trumpets for all troubles that come upon the community (Maimonides, Laws of Fasts 1:1).

And this thing is from the ways of repentance. For when a trouble comes and they yell out about it and sound [trumpets], everyone will know that it was because of their evil deeds that this trouble was done to them, as it is stated, “It is your sins that have caused these things, your sins have withheld goodness from you” (Jeremiah 5:25). And this is what will cause them to remove the trouble from upon them (Ibid. 1:2)

But if they do not cry out , but instead they say , “W hat has happened to us is mere nature,” it is surely the way of cruelty, and it causes them to stick to their bad deeds. And to this trouble (God) will add other troubles. About this is it written in the Torah, “But walk arbitrarily (dismiss) M e, then I will (also) walk arbitrarily with you in fury.” T hat is to say, “When I will bring upon you troubles — if you will say that it is mere nature and not a sign from God, I will increase the fury of this arbitrariness” (Lev . 26: 27-28). (Ibid. 1:3)

The court and the elders sit in the synagogue and examine the actions of the people of the city from after the morning prayers until midday. And they remove stumbling blocks [that lead to] sin; they warn, pursue and investigate men of violence and sin, and separate them [from their ways]. (Ibid. 1:7)

Maimonides clearly teaches that the Bible/Torah demands that the response to communal tragedies is reflection on our evil ways, and repentance. Leviticus (3rd source above) teaches that dismiss- ing the coronavirus as natural will lead to worse events. The Bible teaches that Coronavirus is God’s message to mankind that we are sinners. The importance of repentance in this situation cannot be underestimated.

Talmud Rosh Hashanna 16b:

Rabbi Yitzḥak said, “Three matters evoke a person’s sins (causes God to initiate punishment) and they are: Endangering oneself by sitting next to an inclined wall that is about to collapse; expecting one’s prayer to be accepted, as that leads to a (Divine) assessment of one’s status and merit; and passing a case against another.

Tosfos (a talmudic commentary) says, “expecting prayer to be accepted” means that because of his devotion, one feels confident God will provide his request. It is a serious sin for one to think that his righteousness will certainly generate the fulfillment of his desires. Tosfos states that all three cases are related, for in each one the person trusts in himself. Prayer can cause a person to feel that he will attain his desires.

In the Friday night prayers we refer to God as one who “acquired the heavens and earth.” But as God is the sole source of all existences, He need not make any acquisition. But what this means is an indirect praise. A person feels all will work out if he performs all proper actions. This feeling is a sense of control over everything: he feels that he has an acquisition on his life and the world. But the Bible says that this concept is appropriate in relationship to God alone. Man has no control. (Sometimes, things don’t go as we had hoped and prayed.)

Repentance is required for this confidence that we will be answered in prayer. There is no reality to this confidence, that our devotion will certainly secure God’s positive reply. This confidence is an illusion. Now, that—due to the coronavirus—we cannot congregate to pray in temples, we should think about what [sins] we did to bring about this virus. Coronavirus prevents the nation of Israel’s Torah study and public prayer. Perhaps, our inability to pray publicly is a direct response to our overconfidence in prayer [God always works measure for measure]. We must investigate our ways, identify our sins and repent.

It could be that the Jews’ repentance can bring merit to the rest of the world. The rabbis teach that if the nations knew that the Jewish temple existed for their benefit as well—Jews sacrifice not just for ourselves but for all nations—the nations would surround and protect the temple with legions. Thus, just as the institution of temple benefits the entire world, the Jewish nation’s repentance can also shield the world now from this virus.