By Rabbi Michael Berk
Whether you’re religious or not, or even if you just think about God from time to time, it’s almost impossible to avoid the question: Is God behind this pandemic that’s causing so much suffering in our world? One thing is for sure: you cannot believe in God without asking this question.
This is the kind of question that’s interesting to ask of the Bible. As the ultimate, or at least foundational, book of wisdom for western culture, surely it must have something to say about this issue, which cuts to the heart of faith.
I direct your attention to the Book of Samuel, and a story in which we find perhaps the most disturbing portrayal of God in all the Bible — a God who appears to be evil.
The last chapter of II Samuel starts in an astonishing way: “And the anger of the Lord again flared up against Israel.” God’s mad again. We don’t know what the previous time was; our story is not connected to any earlier incident in Samuel. All we know is that God’s mad at Israel. Again. So, He incited David against Israel. God told David to take a census of the people. God’s functioning is inciting like the serpent in the garden. What’s the problem with a census? Earlier in Scripture, it says that taking a census of the Israelites is dangerous, since doing so can be a source of a plague.
And so does the punishment for the sin. God sends the prophet Gad to David to tell him that he has a choice of punishments for his foolishness: a seven year famine, military defeat, or three days of pestilence.
David is distressed. It’s obviously a tough choice. He prefers not to fall to a military enemy — he doesn’t trust people. But, he trusts God, because God’s merciful, right? So David picks the pestilence, banking on God’s mercy coming through.
God sends pestilence to Israel, and people died from the North of Israel to Beersheba in the South. Some 70,000 men, women and children died in short time. That’s God’s mercy?
In this story, you can’t get around it: God is behind the plague. Why? We don’t know. We can’t understand God. His anger isn’t explained. This is not a moral, rational God that we can apply our categories to. Morality and reason are human constructs. What we see in our story is an aspect of God that is “numinous” — the aspect of God beyond morality and human understanding. It’s God’s holiness; His sanctity. This is the mystery of God.
Now we come to a shift in the story. The plague in Israel is raging and an angel is about to destroy Jerusalem when God stops the angel. At this moment, it seems as though God regrets what He’s done. And one verse later, David also repented. “I have sinned…” And he tells God: just punish me.
Then the prophet Gad comes and tells David to purchase the threshing floor of a Jebusite on a hill above the City of David, and offer a sacrifice to God there. David does as he’s told, and the plague stops.
With this sacrifice at that precise spot, David has found a solution to another problem that he had ever since he made Jerusalem his Capital. Namely, Jerusalem was a brilliant political choice because it belonged to no tribe (much like Washington, DC, was a brilliant choice for the American capital — it belonged to no state). But the city also had no importance to the Israelite nation. No patriarch built an altar there. It was in no tribe’s territory.
So when David’s sacrifice stopped the plague, he realized it would be a great place to build a temple for the Lord. He immediately ordered the ark of the covenant to be brought to Jerusalem. Bringing the ark, and building a home for God on the spot that his sacrifice stopped the plague, would make Jerusalem not only an important political city, but it would become a city that would be sacred eternally to all monotheists. To this day, Jerusalem is holy to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.
So…the end of the story is that the sanctity and holiness of Jerusalem, which you are so familiar with, was created as a result of a pandemic! The final result of that catastrophe was the establishment of the sanctity of Jerusalem throughout history.
Maybe this story is telling us that we cannot justify God if we see Him as the source behind the pestilence. If the plague is indeed a result of divine will, we have no way to perceive it as a moral, rational act that we can understand. God has a “holiness” aspect that’s beyond our understanding of morality, reason and rationality.
In Victor Frankel’s seminal work, Man’s Search for Meaning, he develops the theory that the prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps that were able to find some meaning, some purpose, to their lives and suffering inside the camps, were those who had the greatest likelihood of survival. What can we do, then, as we try to endure this pandemic? The only thing we can do is to try to give our suffering some meaning.
If you pay attention, you will hear inspiring stories of people who’ve discovered meaning and purpose at this horrible time. There’s the physician who recently retired but came out of retirement and went to New York to help when the virus was raging through that city. Or the people who acquired or made masks and brought them to hospitals for the healthcare workers whose supplies were running out. Or the teenager who realized the senior citizen living nearby needed help getting groceries, so volunteered to help.
Another way in which we will be able to find some meaning in our suffering through this horror is the way in which we as a society change. Will we become less destructive of the environment? Will we find the value of human life? In learning how inextricably our lives are entwined, how much we need and depend on each other, will we be kinder and gentler, and more respectful towards those around us?
In the months of quarantine, I have taken up gardening. And I’ve renewed old friendships through the gift of Zoom.
What have you done to find meaning in this time of pandemic? What changes in our society would you like to see when we emerge from this darkness?
Michael Berk is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel, the largest Jewish congregation in San Diego and the oldest in Southern California.
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