The Message of the Pandemic

The earth does not belong to us. It belongs to G-d. This is what the Torah teaches us. We are but temporary sojourners on this earth.

Now think about the corona virus and the terrible pandemic that turned our lives upside down. People ask me on a regular basis, “Rabbi, why is this happening? Why is G-d doing this to us?. What is the message of the pandemic?” I have heard the same answer from numerous people. “G-d is trying to tell us something about our relationship to the earth, and our relationship to nature. Stop!”

The idea is that if we stop going out, stop driving so much, stop working the earth, then nature will reclaim her rightful place. The newspapers offer articles about how
coyotes are returning to urban areas, and other wild animals are flourishing. Pollution is down throughout the world and the skies are clear.

People tell me that the Himalayas are clearer from India than they have been for years. But both Tibet and Nepal have cancelled all climbing on Mt. Everest, a major boom to their economies in the month of May. Even mountain climbers, as fit as anyone on earth, are not immune to the corona virus. The word I have heard from numerous people is that nature is reasserting herself and telling us humans to stop misappropriating the earth. People tell
me that this is the message in the corona virus.

There is much truth that since the worldwide shut down, the skies are cleaner, and the roads are clearer than ever before.

What bothers me is the theology behind this understanding of the virus. In this theology, G-d gets angry with us for abusing the earth, and so G-d sends a virus to punish us. G-d is allowing the earth, and nature itself, to punish us. The virus has a higher purpose, to teach us humans a lesson. It is the same theology that blamed Hurricane Katrina on the behavior of the people of New Orleans. Natural events are warnings from G-d. Just as the Bible tried to get us to let the land lie fallow, so G-d sent a virus to teach us to stop driving so much. The pandemic is telling us that we need to change our ways.

I understand that there is something deeply human behind this kind of thinking. People want to believe that everything happens for a purpose. Whether it is cancer cells or hurricanes or pandemics, there must be a reason. Nature is sending us a message and we would be wise to listen.

But I remain skeptical. My own reaction is that nature is nature, following its own laws. The corona virus is simply a natural event, and we humans must adjust our lives accordingly. The Rabbis of the Talmud asked the question, if a man steals wheat and plants it, should it not refuse to grow. The Talmud answers olam keminhago noheg.– “nature acts according to its own rules”.(Avodah Zara 54b).

Our job is not to second-guess nature. The question is not whether G-d is punishing us, but how we can become better people in the face of the problems we face.

Rabbi Scolnic