Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Gathering Storm 3/15

The Coronavirus is coming.

A week ago we held to the illusion that with a few simple precautions we could continue to live our normal lives. Now we realize that quarantine is no longer the fate of the unfortunate few, but will probably be more or less the reality for everyone. As we huddle in our homes, the worries begin to pour out: How bad will this plague be? Will it touch someone close to me? How long will it last for?

It would be wonderful to make believe these questions don't exist; but denial is a luxury we can't afford in challenging times. Yet we are uncertain about almost everything. Vacillating predictions echo through our minds, and our hearts bounce between hope and worry.  And it is this constant change of outlook that creates a sense of anxiety.

Anxiety is not fear. Anxiety is the loss of our sense of control, because you don't know what the outcome will be. Uncertainty is more destabilizing than fear. There is an old rabbinic saying "there is no joy like the undoing of doubts"(אין שמחה כהתרת הספיקות), because anxiety only exists in the realm of doubt.

Anxiety is particularly difficult for contemporary man. One of the great illusions of modernity is that somehow we can overcome any obstacle that comes in our path. And modern man has done an incredible job of taming the cosmos. We have found a way to overcome disease after disease, we have created technology after technology which enhances life, and we seem to have a solution for almost everything. But now we have the Coronavirus, and, (for the time being), are out of solutions.

This is a profound challenge for a generation that has not faced any existential threats. The previous generation faced a Holocaust, a World War, and the struggles of immigration; and our generation has been the lucky inheritors of their success. We have never before dealt with anything like the Coronavirus, and we are anxious. And that anxiety actually undermines our own self identity; we realize we are no longer in complete control of our destiny. Two weeks ago we all saw ourselves as far more powerful and in control; now we recognize our own fragility.

But I am not writing this to be depressing or frightening. On the contrary, we will find that this crisis can inspire us. As Rav Soloveitchik reminds us, it is at this time of our own defeat that we find a new strength. We begin to recognize that even the vulnerable can make moral choices that are heroic. We can always love, we can always hope, and we can always dream. We may be facing a threat we don't fully understand, but one thing we do know for certain: the human soul is stronger than anything else.

This morning when I was saying the tachanun prayer my eyes were drawn to the first verse which is a quote from the book of Samuel:

וַיֹּ֧אמֶר דָּוִ֛ד אֶל־גָּ֖ד צַר־לִ֣י מְאֹ֑ד נִפְּלָה־נָּ֤א בְיַד־יְהוָה֙ כִּֽי־רַבִּ֣ים רחמו [רַֽחֲמָ֔יו] וּבְיַד־אָדָ֖ם אַל־אֶפֹּֽלָה׃

“David said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hands of the LORD, for His compassion is great; and let me not fall into the hands of men.”

King David is a powerful king. But one day that power is taken away from him; and his only prayer is that he be left in the hands of God. There are days when we recognize that some things are out of our hands; our human hands are just too short to do the feats of God. And that is exactly the time when we need to reach deep into our souls for something more than brute physical power.

Anxious times require more love. Anxious times require more prayer. Anxious times require more hope. And that is where we must turn now.

I am deeply inspired right now by how many people have asked me how they can help. They want to know how they can help the vulnerable, they want to know how they can help their friends, they want to know how they can help their Rabbi.

Nothing gives me greater strength in these anxious times than the spirit of our community.

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