By Rabbi Greg Alexander
As I write this, Cape Town is still staggering under the weight of the third wave.
We are all counting the losses and every day brings yet another funeral, another zoom shiva prayers. The month of Elul is always a time of introspection and reflection as we prepare for the High Holy Days, and in an ordinary year, many of us have the custom of coming to the cemetery to visit graves of family and friends. This year, not only are these visits forbidden by the COVID restrictions, but we are here in Pinelands Cemetery too often for funerals instead. The dusty mounds of new graves at the cemetery’s edge are a grim symbol of what our small community has been through in the past year and a half.
The incomparable Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, wrote a disturbing poem titled El Malei Rachamim – (G-d Full of Mercy), the only too well-known opening line of the hazkarah, the traditional memorial prayer chanted at Jewish funerals. In his poem, Amichai accuses G-d of hoarding all the mercy for Herself. As Amichai puts it, “G-d Full of mercy/ If God was not full of mercy/ Mercy would have been in the world/ Not just in Him.” In other words, the poem condemns G!d for the lack of compassion in this world. By being “full of mercy,” G@d left no mercy for everyone down here on Earth. Amichai continues, “I, who brought corpses from the hills/ Can tell you that the world is empty of mercy.”
Amichai lived through World War 2 with all its horrors and fought there and in the many wars of Israel’s early years and when he says that he “brought corpses from the hills” he is speaking not just as a poet but also from experience. It’s a bleak outlook on the world and if we take this approach that the world is “empty of mercy” how do we find the strength to get up in the morning? How can we see a way forward when the next strain of Coronavirus forges through our community?
We must be able to counter this grim picture of our lives and seek to answer the question of how a G-d of Mercy can allow the Coronavirus to do what it has to our world. It is surely the greatest question of our times.
There are generally three ways that I hear people answering this question and I want to suggest a fourth. The first is that G-d is punishing us for something (add in here for our sins, for our lack of faith, for our ‘corrupt world’ that permits abominations like abortion and same-sex marriage or even to tell the world that [insert name of religion] is the true one etc) and I have to say outright that the G*d that I believe in does not work this way, and that these explanations are usually less about G!d and more about our own human prejudices. Not only has the virus not ‘punished’ any specific group, but those most brutally affected have been those who were most vulnerable physically and economically when it began, and a G!d of justice and mercy is not going to do that.
The second answer is that this is just the way of the world. In the words of the Talmud, ‘Olam k’minhago noheig – the world goes according to its custom’ (see BT Avodah Zarah 54b). This is a logical answer, but it leaves us feeling pretty ambivalent about G-d, a distant, uncaring Ruler of our world. Would a G!d of Mercy allow something like Corona to just rip through the world because that’s the way of disease?
Thirdly, there are those who will say, “You can’t understand G-d – it’s a mystery beyond us.” Or, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares the Eternal. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa. 55:8–9)
While of course, we are limited in our human ability to know the Divine, the problem with this thinking is that it ignores the entire project of Judaism which is to try to understand the meaning of our lives, why we exist. And here lies the fourth approach to this question.
There is a reason that G@d bothered to reveal Herself at Mt Sinai and that we have made study of Torah the core activity of Jewish life for the 3500 years since then. That is surely that there is a way to understand (at least something of) this world. That our lives have meaning and purpose and that we have been given the ability to reason and think and speak and read to decode the mystery. While we might not get to all the answers, we have to strive towards trying. Why was our world so susceptible to this virus? Has it not exposed the wide gaps between those who have access to medical care and those who have not? Those who have the ability to stay home and order food online and those who stand on the street corners desperate for handouts?
The world is challenging, it always has been, and the Coronavirus has not left any corner of our planet immune from its devastation. Our response is surely to be partners with G-d in responding to it. We have to rise to the challenge to reset our priorities, to recreate society as a kinder, fairer, more compassionate world for all its creatures. To use the opportunity now to make positive changes to the way we look after our Earth and each other. And to see the beauty and possibility about us everyday, every moment.
The world,” said the Baal Shem Tov, “is full of miracles, but we take our little hand and cover our eyes and see nothing.” As we prepare for these Highest and most Holy Days, let us seek to be the partners that G@d needs to repair our world.
Temple Israel www.templeisrael.co.za
• Published in the PDF edition of the September 2021 issue – Get the PDF here.
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