• Finding God in the Time of a Pandemic

Rabbi Howard O. Laibson | Rabbinic Contributor



As I write this, we have recently participated in Passover Seders. During the seder, we pour out a drop of wine or grape juice for each of the plagues God inflicted on the Egyptians for Pharoah's refusal to let the Israelite slaves go. We pour out the wine to indicate that, since wine represents joy, we decrease our joy because people - including the blameless - are suffering.


Today, we are in the midst of another plague, COVID-19. During our current, stressful pandemic experience, many are wondering or even asking aloud: Where is God in all of this? Did God send this plague, as some form of punishment?  For what sin(s)? Will God protect me if I'm basically a good person? Will God protect any of us?


The Rabbis of ancient days embraced the teaching, “It is not for us to understand why the good suffer, and the wicked prosper.” And in truth, we mortals will never comprehend the actions of God completely. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't make an effort to comprehend God as well as we can.


There are many legitimately Jewish approaches to understanding God. I'm not going to summarize them all in this space. There is one, however, that especially resonates with me. It is known as Religious Naturalism. This approach does not equate nature with God, but rather discovers and experiences God in nature. In this view, God is the energy in nature which nurtures/motivates/encourages life and growth. 


We find evidence for this in the way parents love one another and create a tiny spark of life which, ultimately, grows into a man or woman or non-binary adult. We see more evidence in how a plant will turn itself toward the sunlight in order to thrive. Even more evidence is found in the ongoing (very slowly) reality of evolution: life is growth. The “Big Bang,” which Jewish mystics taught hundreds of years before modern astrophysics, began as God withdrew into God's self and then radiated outward ever expanding, creating the Universe, where energy ultimately cooled to become matter, and where a different spark of energy emerged, life - this, too, is evidence of God nurturing life.


So, did God send our current plague? I personally don't believe God works in that manner. But I could be wrong. However, to me the more appropriate questions are these: Given that COVID-19 is upon us, how should we respond? Are there ways we can imitate God? In other words, what can we do to nurture/motivate/encourage life and growth?  


1. We can remember that, more important than any other Jewish values, pikuach nefesh -- the saving of a life - is supreme. Thus we should support health care workers - EMTs, ambulance drivers, doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, hospital workers of every type - with all of the materials they need to save lives and to protect themselves. They are doing God's work. 


2. We should follow the guidelines that authorities establish to keep ourselves and others safe and healthy. That means STAYING HOME. And when we must go out, we should wear a mask and remain six feet away from others. Physical distancing will save lives - surely a Godly act. 


3. To diminish the sense of isolation that sometimes accompanies staying home, we should take steps to reduce “social entropy.” Get together frequently with family members on Zoom, FaceTime or whatever platform with which you are comfortable. Pick up the phone and call these people, as well as people you may not know well but who may appreciate hearing from you. Within the needs of physical distancing, create social closeness as best as you can with technology.


If we know anything about God, God wants us to live and to grow. If we want to know where God is during this time of pandemic, all we need to do is to imitate God. There we will find an answer.