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March 26, 2020

“Whatever doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger,” Friedrich Nietzsche purportedly said. “Suffering opens the Crown Chakra,” said Yogi Schwar, a spiritual master in the Theosophical tradition, who was born in England, studied in India and lived in Israel during the late 1970s and early ’80s. Personally, I prefer the school of Rabbi Chiya bar Abba as told in Tractate Brachot: Rabbi Chiya became ill, and visited the sage Rabbi Yochanan to ask for healing. “Is suffering dear to you?” Rabbi Yochanan asked. “Neither the suffering, nor their reward,” was Rabbi Chiya’s answer.

These are bad times. Our world is suffering during these pandemic days − from illness, anxiety, loneliness, financial loss. We haven’t asked for this; we wouldn’t wish this on anyone. The suffering in these days is not dear to us.

The Book of Proverbs says, “On a good day, be good, and on a bad day, see.” In other words, as Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav explained, if we carefully look into what is happening on a bad day, we begin to see there is good there, too; that G-d’s teachings and G-d’s love are hidden within the bad days themselves. Days like these, pandemic days, roil our emotions like a storm upon the sea. But if we can find the calmness to look deeply, lessons hidden in the day will shine out at us, Rabbi Nachman says, and will reveal teachings that are expressions of divine love.

What is the good within these bad days? For one, the whole world truly is in one boat. Just like in countless films about the world uniting in the face of an enemy from outer space or a zombie attack, viruses don’t distinguish between nationality, ethnicity, religioun or race. We’re all together in this. Our prayers must be prayers for the whole world, and our vision of healing must include everyone.

Yes, you may blame the Chinese for all this — or even the Jews, as some have. Yet, for most people, as borders close, hearts have opened. I find myself praying these days for the Iranians. Not for the Ayatollahs or the Revolutionary Guard, but for the average Iranian trapped in the wrong place at the wrong time, poorly governed with an overtaxed health system. The messianic vision of one world has been brought forward a notch with the coronavirus-inspired revelation of how completely all our fates are intertwined.

In the 1960s, there was a Broadway play called “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.”  For a long time, it has seemed to many of us that the world has become too big, too complex — too massively, intricately, interconnected to ever “stop.” Yet there were good reasons to want the world to stop, to put the ongoing financial and political processes on hold so we could discuss the common good. In particular, the global market, driven by huge corporations and the need for constant growth, and totally dependent on international trade, fossil fuels and a growing consumer class seemed like a powerful force of nature. Where was the lever that could make it slow down? To give us time to think, to plan, to dream of a better world? Impossible to stop, all we dreamers were told.

“The whole world truly is in one boat.”

Didn’t we desperately need to be able to put on the brakes? How could we think about what is good for humanity with a market spinning beyond our control and all of us in its gravitational field? If the intertwined world of politics and global economics was moving like a powerful, independent, perpetual-motion machine, how would we be able to discuss how to revive the dying oceans; mitigate climate change; eliminate infectious disease; ascertain everyone had enough good food to eat; regulate artificial intelligence; ensure genetic engineering did not create monsters; or cause new kinds of inequalities?

The coronavirus has taught us the world can stop; that when it comes to saving human lives, we can shut down the economy and our social lives in ways that would have been unimaginable just a few weeks ago.

Losing money is a bad thing. But isn’t it profoundly moving that the lives of the vulnerable mean so much to us that our governments have sacrificed trillions of dollars to save them? We’ve closed borders, grounded flights and shut down whole sectors of the world economy. For those of us who believe in markets but also believe the power of markets must be embedded in something bigger —the search for the common good of humanity — this is big news. It remains to be seen how deeply this lesson will penetrate, but if we can stop so suddenly and completely for the coronavirus, doesn’t it mean we can stop — or turn — to accomplish any number of things together? Tragic and nerve-wracking as it is, to me, the coronavirus offers hope we can learn to shape the global world we have created into a more just and beautiful world.

Perhaps our motivation to do so also will grow, after having seen how deeply we are all connected. COVID-19 came out of China and Ebola emerged from Africa. Who knows from where the next threat to all of us in the world we have threaded together will originate? “We must all hang together or most assuredly, we will all hang apart,” Ben Franklin once said. Coronavirus brings this home.

One of the great lessons for me in my work with Tevel b’Tzedek is the understanding that poverty is more about vulnerability than it is about day-to-day life. The problem with life in a subsistence farming village in the Global South is not necessarily ongoing suffering — although there is no lack of that as well, along with joy, family and friendship — but the fact that without a safety net, without health care, one’s life can change in an instant, from tolerable to unbearable.

Is it possible this virus, which has made us all feel vulnerable, will make us understand there is no longer a developed and developing world? That we all are part of one crazy and amazing world; all still developing; all of us aspiring, consciously or unconsciously, to achieve a human world where empathy and compassion are stronger than greed and lust for power? A world not of social distancing, but of social solidarity? Where diseases such as malaria, and health threats such as malnutrition and lack of safe water, will be taken as seriously as COVID-19?

I bless all of us to look deeply into this bad day, to use the slowing-down time we have been granted for reflection on the kind of world we want to see. We are not free unless we all are free. Isn’t that one of the pandemic’s lessons?


Micha Odenheimer is Founder and Rabbi at Tevel B’Tzedek    

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