A Jewish man wears a face mask to curb the spread of the coronavirus as he reads from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem’s Old City, on April 10, 2020.
What Jewish mysticism can teach us about the coronavirus
(RNS) — Jews are not unfamiliar with pain and suffering. We memorialize national calamity with holidays, rituals and remembrances, as we do today on Holocaust Remembrance Day. We have highly scripted rituals of mourning and remembrance. Even amid the joy of a wedding, the groom smashes a glass to recall the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem centuries ago. Most recently, the Holocaust forced us to confront a stark existential question:
How can a supposedly benevolent G-d allow such a terrible thing to happen?
In the face of the global suffering inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic, we are faced with an eerily similar question.
Jewish mysticism, as espoused both by ancient teachings and its most recent torchbearer, Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, provides a different lens on disaster. “To repair the blight of death,” Schneerson penned in a journal entry during the Nazi epoch, “ … one must descend to its place in order to raise it up; measure-for-measure, the resulting ascent likewise reaches to the ultimate extremity.”
What did the rebbe mean? Were his words simply a recapitulation of the potent “blessing in disguise” maxim, or something deeper and more profound? In a prescient 1982 speech, known in Yiddish as a farbrengen, Schneerson, the seventh in a line of dynastic rabbis dating back to the 1600s, delivered the following lines: “It is simple logic that when there is a new deficiency, when a new illness develops, completely unprecedented illness, Heaven forfend — one cannot suffice with the cures for yesterday’s illness or the previous generation’s cures.”
There is nothing new or particularly striking about this revelation. However, in the next breath the rebbe refers to an obscure Talmudic dictum that turns the notion of pandemic on its head. “Since it is a new illness, a new cure is needed and if man searches he will surely find it, for when God created the world, ‘He created the cure before the illness.”
What is so sublime about this notion, transliterated from the Hebrew as “makdim refuah lamakah,” is that it not only points to a paradigmatic belief about the nature of the world, of G-d’s ultimate goodness even in the face of unprecedented adversity, but it foreshadows what we are currently — and unexpectedly — experiencing.
Taken literally, the belief that the world was created with remedies alongside ailments is not only deeply comforting, it functions as a catalyst for scientists to discover a vaccine, treatment and ultimate cure for coronavirus. Whether the cure is a medicinal plant growing on G-d’s green earth or something created with human ingenuity in a lab, contemporary medical science is inspired by the belief that the cure has already preceded the illness and we must just discover it.
On a more metaphysical level, as we enter the no-longer-novel phase of this novel virus, we are discovering other cures for social, environmental or personal ailments. For starters, we are learning the interconnectedness of humanity in the most immediate, profound and, yes, tragic way.
As a side effect of that isolation, we are coming to realize our deep dependency upon one another. While the toll is tragically high, we are slowly but surely discovering wonder and mystery, alongside the fear and anxiety. Collectively, we are learning that our illusions of safety were just that: illusions. We are discovering how little we actually need. Our priorities are getting set straight. We are learning about respecting our neighbors because of the brave and essential work they do, work we previously had overlooked or even disrespected.
Ordinary people are finding themselves as heroes. No one is immune owing to their money or social status.
When we glance outside from our quarantine, we note that the air is cleaner and the sun is shining in places where it has almost been forgotten. Yes, the medical cure that was there before the advent of COVID-19 is waiting to be discovered, but there is another cure going on, to an ailment that we did not even notice.
That cure is the salve of love, fellowship and reciprocity that the world has so desperately craved. It has been hiding dormant this entire time. In awakening this cure from the depths of its slumber, an unfolding takes place, a transformation of society and self, that illuminates the path forward, offering us a tantalizing glimpse of a new and better social vision.
Alas, the Jewish mystics cannot lay claim to this theory entirely. It is echoed in mythologies as wide ranging as the Norse, Native American, Inca and Aztec. A recent edition of The Atlantic magazine even took up the torch, recalling the “Little Ice Age” of 1600 when temperatures in Europe cooled precipitously and forced English, French and Dutch fishermen to build improved boats. That article closes with the same prophetic suggestion as the rebbe had made, that “away from the noise and heave of the world” a new dawn might be born.
We are at the precipice of a new dawn.
The words of Rabbi Schneerson were drawn from the ancient and enigmatic Talmud and they echo through the ages. The ancient wisdom of
makdim refuah lamakah is tailor-made for precisely this moment. We have descended to this place in order to raise it up. The cure is given before the disease and we are only now just discovering it.
(Philip Wexler is executive director of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality and Society and emeritus professor of sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Michael Wexler is a teacher and writer. They are co-authors, with Eli Rubin, of “Social Vision: The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Transformative Paradigm for the World.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)