Explainng the corona virus

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Daniel Pinner ,

Body of coronavirus victim removed from nursing home in Montreal
Body of coronavirus victim removed from nursing home in Montreal

Over the last few months (has it really been only a few months? – It feels like half our lives!), we have been inundated with pundits, religious and secular, explaining why the coronavirus has struck humanity.

Philosophers and charlatans, preachers and exploiters, have offered countless explanations.

In these weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, we read each Shabbat one chapter of Pirkei Avot, “Chapters of the Fathers” (often rendered “Ethics of the Fathers”).

This last Shabbat, 15th Iyyar (9 May), we read Chapter 4, which I suggest provides us with the best possible answer to the question of why this coronavirus is devastating humanity:

“Rabbi Yannai says: Neither the pleasant fortunes of the evil people nor the suffering of the righteous are given to us to understand” (Pirkei Avot 4:15).

Now it is tempting to leave it at this: We cannot explain why good things happen to bad people, or why bad things happen to good people. It’s beyond our understanding, so leave it.

But Rabbi Yannai’s words demand a more incisive examination. He was, after all, one of the great Masters of the Talmud: he was a disciple of Rabbi Yehudah the Nasi (“Prince”, meaning Head of the Sanhedrin) – the Master who reacted the Mishnah circa 200 C.E.

He also studied under Rabbi Hiyya, who promised him: “You are destined one day in the future to lead Israel” (Yerushalmi Demai 7:1).

The Yeshivah which he established in Akbara, in the Galilee (in Rabbi Yannai’s day several kilometres due south of Tzfat, today an outer suburb of Tzfat) lasted for several generations, and educated some our greatest Sages including Rabbi Yochanan (Bava Batra 154b), Reish Lakish (Eiruvin 11b), Rabbi Osha’yah (Ketuvot 79a), and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi (Yerushalmi Kiddushin 3:2).

Rabbi Yannai was living in Israel at a time when the Land was under increasingly-oppressive Roman occupation, Jews suffering ever more sorely from their decrees – while the Roman pagan idolaters seemed to be invincible.

Clearly, Rabbi Yannai’s comments recorded in the Mishnah are not mere throwaway lines.

One thing we can derive from Rabbi Yannai’s words is that we cannot expound upon why exactly this coronavirus has been set loose on humanity to devastate it.

I should like to present a simple parable:

Imagine yourself driving on a long, lonely road out in the countryside. You know the area thoroughly, and you know that the nearest village is several miles ahead. Between where you are now and the next village is just empty wasteland – not a farm, not a cottage, not a single turn-off, not even a dirt-track through the landscape.

And at this point you see someone by the side of the road, walking in the same direction that you are driving. He is carrying what appears to be a heavy load, and his gait suggests that he is in a hurry.

What do you do?

– You stop your car, wind down your window, and offer him a lift. After all, you know that he has at least until the next village – several miles away – to suffer his burden, and you are in a position to help.

Now change the scenario very subtly: the same meeting at the same point on the same road, the same man – but now he is jogging, dressed in track-suit and sports-shoes, and the load he is carrying consists of weights strapped round his wrists and ankles.

Under these conditions, of course you don’t stop to offer him a lift. It’s obvious that he’s an athlete-in-training, he’s running and carrying weights in order to build up his muscles.

You might still wind down the window to call out some words of encouragement (“Good on you, mate!”), you might give him a thumb’s-up, you might try to spur him on to greater achievements (“Come on, you can carry another 5 kilogrammes, you can run 5 km/h faster!”) – but you certainly wouldn’t offer him a lift.

There is only one difference between these two scenarios: in the first, you don’t perceive any reason for his unpleasant ordeal, in the second you do understand precisely why he is undergoing his ordeal.

And it is precisely because you understand why he is going through this ordeal that you don’t stop to help.

And so chas ve-shalom (G-d forbid) that we ever understand why good people suffer. G-d forbid that we ever understand why innocent people suffer from coronavirus – or, come to that, floods, wars, famines, earthquakes, diseases, tsunamis, tornadoes, or any other disasters.

Because if we ever understood why people suffer, then we wouldn’t stop to help. We might still call out some words of encouragement (“Good on you, mate!”), we might try to spur them on to greater suffering (“What? Call that an earthquake?! Let’s see 15 on the Richter Scale!”) – but we certainly wouldn’t offer any help.

But that is not our task as humans in this world. Our task is to help others who are suffering.

Our obligation to our fellow-humans is to slow down and offer help. In this current ordeal of Covid-19, everyone can do something:

From the world’s greatest physicians, virologists, and epidemiologists who are working desperately to find a cure or a vaccine (or preferably both), to the ordinary doctors, nurses, and other health-workers who risk their health and lives day-by-day to help those who are or might be infected;

From those who have the financial wherewithal to donate to research facilities, to those who can just spare a few coins for those who need a mask or a loaf of bread;

From those who can change the world for the better to those of us who can just visit an aging neighbour who lives alone once every few days –

Every one of us can do something to help our fellow-humans.

Not only with this coronavirus, but with every disaster, from the gravest to the most trivial, that ever confronts us.

And this, we can only do when we do not understand the reason for suffering.

And this is why “neither the pleasant fortunes of the evil people nor the suffering of the righteous are given to us to understand”.