Who by Earthquake and Who by Plague?
Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin Founder, Chancellor Emeritus and Rosh HaYeshiva
We enter this Rosh HaShanah 5781 with heavy hearts in Israel, in the midst of a second wave of the COVID-19 Pandemic Plague which has, as of the first week in September, claimed the lives of more than 1,000 Israelis and over 884,000 people across the globe.
In our tradition, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim), and our New Year Days specifically as Days of Judgment (Yemei HaDin); indeed, I vividly remember and can still hear my grandmother’s beseeching sobs from the Women’s Gallery in the shul I attended as a child every holiday with my grandparents, a landsmanshaft synagogue founded by emigres from Lubien, Poland to Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
The specific prayer which drew forth more tears than any other was the U’Netanah Tokef prayer ascribed to Rav Kalonymus ben Meshulam of Mayence (circa 1100 CE). “Let us give power to the sanctity of this day, for it is awesome and fearful It is true that You are Judge and Decisor, Omniscient and All-seeing… You open the Book of Remembrances, with the Signature of every human hand written therein… The angels are quaking, shaking with fear and trembling, declaring: ‘Behold the Day of Judgment is at hand; No one emerges guiltless in your eyes of Judgment…’ Just as the shepherd… passes each sheep under his staff So do You pass through, record, number and appoint every living soul Fixing a specific lifetime limit to every human creature…. On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: How many shall pass away and how many shall be born…. Who by fire and who by water… who by earthquake and who by plague… Who shall be brought down and who shall be raised up.”
The picture evoked by this prayer is frightening, positing a God who is at best a strict judge and at worst an omnipotent King, arbitrary in judgment, who eventually metes out the death sentence to every human mortal in whichever manner and after whatever length of time on earth God deems most appropriate.
From this perspective, since our entire world has become infected by the COVID-19 Plague, at the very least it behooves us to attempt to identify the worldwide sin which initially brought about such a pandemic, and then at least some of us can repent and perhaps mitigate further suffering.
After all, the piyut concludes: Repentance, Prayer and Charitable Righteousness Can Remove the Evil Decree. And perhaps the most agonizing question of all is how to square this Liturgical Piyut with our concept of a Loving God who is a God of unconditional love before we sin and even after we sin (Exodus 34:6; see Rashi on the repetition of the Ineffable Name of God).
It is important to understand that there are two contrasting attitudes of the Talmudic Sages as to how to understand God’s relationship to our world: there were those who taught that God controls whatever happens, that a leaf doesn’t fall from a tree unless God causes it to fall.
Others maintained that the world functions in accordance with the arbitrary rules of nature (Avodah Zara 54b, “עולם כמנהגו נוהג“) – that righteous people may often suffer and wicked may prosper, that there is no reward for commandments in this world (Kiddushin 39b).
It is this second view which is the dominant one in the Talmud as well as in our life experiences.
Indeed, it is almost impossible to blind ourselves to the reality, seen so clearly by the Prophet Isaiah, that God created an imperfect and incomplete world, a world with light but also darkness, with order but also chaos, with good but also evil:
“I form light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil, I am the Maker of all these” (Isaiah 45:7).
God is credited with (or blamed for) evil because He created a world in potential, with all the necessary raw materials but which required human hands to activate and develop it (Genesis 2:5). And so He created the human being with uninhibited freedom of choice, even to do that which God would not have wanted done, so as not merely to be God’s puppets but hopefully to be God’s partners, to redeem humanity and take responsibility to perfect God’s incomplete world. (ibid., 2:15). And so in these verses the Bible uses God’s Ineffable Name of the Loving Lord, who lovingly created the human being to whom He lovingly gave a portion of His Divine Self from Above, in God’s Divine Image, and so a fitting Partner for the Divine on earth.
Now from this renewed perspective, let us look again at U’Netanah Tokef. It is the beginning of a New Year, a Day of Judgment, not so much God judging us as to what kind of year He will give us — we have already said that we are neither punished nor rewarded in this world — but we are rather assessing ourselves, considering how we spent this past year of our lives. Did we attempt to better ourselves by bettering the world around us, our family, our society, the society at large — each of us in the context of our sphere of influence?
We are not in control of how long we will live, but we are in control of how we spend the time which is at our disposal. And as Rabbi Akiva taught, the greatest principle of Torah is to love and give to others (ahava is love from the smaller verb hav, to give) — in whatever situation we may find ourselves, whether it be war or plague or hospitalization.
I will never forget Dassy Rabinovitch z’l, a vibrant teenager who loved Torah and lived life, who was suddenly felled by a virulent cancer which all-too-quickly took her life. When I finally found her room in Hadassah Hospital, I was told by the nurse that she was visiting other patients in the hospital, that she spent every afternoon spreading cheer and faith — even when she could barely walk herself. She understood how to make a meaningful life even in the most difficult situations; she understood how to partner with God.
And so in time of plague, the scientists working on producing a vaccine, the doctors and nurses giving palliative health care, the neighbors and friends helping with the children, bringing in food and, when necessary, giving financially are all partners with God to alleviate the suffering.
Indeed, this is how U’Netanah Tokef concludes: “Repentance, Prayer and Righteous Charity will remove the bitterness of the decree.” It does not state that these good deeds will remove the evil decree — רעה גזרה — from a world which is still incomplete and often arbitrary; but loving and giving to others, partnering with God, will always remove the bitterness which often comes when we are only focused on ourselves, rather than reaching out to other. The Plague from which we are now suffering — a forceful reminder of how we live in a global village in a most interdependent world — must remind us of our mission as a free and independent nation after 2,000 years of exile and persecution, “to be students of Aaron, lovers of peace and seekers of peace, lovers of humanity and bringing everyone closer to Torah” (Mishnah Avot 1,3).