On rethinking our approach to the current state of the pandemic

Hashem wants us to react to the global suffering that we bear witness to. The world is not at peace; much sorrow and terror still abound.

Avi Lasdun ,

Avi Lasdun
Avi Lasdun

I am writing to urge my fellow Jews to rethink our approach to the current state of the pandemic, specifically the fact that, thank G-d, viral transmission, severe illness and death are on the decline in many localities of Jewish life. It is only natural that we would breathe a sigh of relief and even take joy in the fact that we can go about unrestricted, with Shuls now nearly back to full capacity. Given that only a couple of months ago, many Shuls were so restricted, requiring masks and social distancing, Kiddushim and receptions were totally off limits, it is quite understandable that we would feel joy and relief now that we have reclaimed significant normalcy in our communal lives.

What perturbs me is the seemingly prevailing attitude: “It’s about time, good riddance to this pandemic and associated constraints to our lives.” I find this so disturbing because this attitude indicates that we have learned very little from this sad experience, and we have not turned our attention to the messages and lessons that Hashem demands from us to absorb.

To make my point, I direct your readers’ attention to the 1960 Valdivia earthquake. On May 22, 1960, Chile was struck by the most powerful earthquake ever recorded (magnitude of 9.4–9.6). This catastrophe left approximately two million people homeless and untold thousands injured and dead, due to the earthquake-induced tsunamis which battered Chile, Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, New Zealand and Australia. During a mussar address following the earthquake, HaRav Yechezkel Levenstein reprimanded the Yeshiva students for failing to be Nosei B’ol (empathize) with those who were devastated by this disaster and for not feeling sorrow for their unimaginable suffering. Here is an excerpt from Rav Levenstein’s address (Ohr Yechezkel, Chelek Middos, Ma'amar: "Laasos Nekomah BaGoyim"):

“It is astonishing that we see the severely difficult events in the world and we witness Heavenly punishment playing out before our eyes. Yet, we don’t turn our hearts to this and instead, we go about our daily life as if nothing happened. This is an obvious result of our lack of Emunah (faith in Hashem) – we think everything is happenstance, without Divine Providence. Therefore, we don’t pay heed or see any lesson to learn. Even so, it is astonishing that we fail to understand that it behooves us to feel the misfortune, punishment and suffering in the world; the world is not in a state of peace.

"The earthquake has left thousands killed, injured and homeless with no roof overhead. Yet, this has left no impression upon us; we remain apathetic to their terrible suffering. I do not see anyone talking about this. Why are we not thinking about the tremendous calamity that has befallen the residents of the impacted countries?"

We cannot claim to know Hashem’s reasons for sending the pandemic and associated sorrow to so many families and communities around the world. But we do know how Hashem wants us to react to the global suffering that we still bear witness to. Things may be much better for us personally, in our communities and families, but the world is not at peace; much sorrow and terror still abound.

"The most recent health data report approximately 400,000 new daily COVID-19 cases globally and approximately 10,000 associated daily deaths globally. In India alone, 100,000 new cases are reported daily. Clearly, many communities around the world do not share the joy and relief that we experience. How can we simply go about our daily lives humming happy tunes to ourselves while the rest of the world lives in such anguish?

We can clearly learn from Rav Levenstein’s address in 1960 how Hashem wants us to respond to the global calamity in 2021:

"We fail to understand that a person’s purpose is to be concerned about and seek out the wellbeing of the entire world and all its creations ... Thus, HaKadosh Boruch Hu demands from us that we empathize with and have compassion for non-Jews as well. We are obligated to feel the pain of all the victims swept away by the catastrophic earthquake, and to feel the terror of those who live in the affected areas.”

I therefore posit that if we simply sigh a breath of relief and take glee in the newfound freedoms in our Jewish communities without reflecting on the sorrow and fear that now afflicts the world, Rav Levenstein would admonish us today the same way he admonished his students sixty one years ago. It behooves us to reflect upon and empathize with the unimaginable global suffering still affecting many millions of people today.

It is worthwhile to record a few vignettes of Tzaddikim who demonstrated remarkable sensitivity and pain over the suffering of non-Jews.

-HaRav Yeruchem Levovitz mentioned that when the Sabba of Kelm saw non-Jews traveling long distances to their houses of worship, he felt unbearable sorrow for them, imagining their great disappointment when they would leave this world and realize all their toil was for naught.

-When the Ponovezher Rov, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, returned from a fund-raising trip in South Africa, he visited the Choftez Chaim and reported his observations.

-The Chofetz Chaim expressed his concern and pain over the appalling living conditions that the black population in South Africa were subjected to at that time.

-Rav Yaacov Haber recounts that after the devastating tsunami of 2004, Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl, the former chief rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem who was nearly 70 years old at the time, packed his bags intending to travel to the disaster site to personally participate in offering humanitarian aid. It was only with great effort that his family managed to dissuade him from undertaking this very strenuous trip.

From these Gedolim, we learn that we must “pump the brakes” on our personal happiness to feel the pain and empathize with the current suffering of the rest of the world. To do otherwise, is to turn our backs on the great heritage that Avrohom Avinu bequeathed to us, as stated in Bereishis 18:19: “For he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of Hashem, acting with righteousness and justness.”