Last week a congregant wrote me to ask me a question. “Rabbi,” they write, “Our school district has cancelled classes and states the missed days will never be made up, as they call this an “Act of G-d.” My question to you is just that: is this really an Act of G-d?
Isn’t that a marvelous question? I think when the school system uses the phrase “Act of G-d” they are not making a theological pronouncement. To my understanding, an “act of G-d” is a metaphor for “a natural catastrophe”, something like a hurricane or a tornado that causes great damage. It is an unforeseen, overwhelming, event that we have little capacity to prevent it. While our current crisis surely meets these criteria, we need not worry. The school system is still maintaining the separation of Church and State, despite the wording of the announcement.
What role does G-d play in the Coronavirus crisis? We Jews affirm that G-d is the “Creator of Everything” which would include a destructive virus. I come to you this evening to let G-d off the hook, at least with respect to what we are experiencing at this time. I am going to argue that we exonerate G-d. G-d may have created the Coronavirus, for what reason we do not know, but G-d is surely not responsible for either infecting people or spreading the virus. That responsibility lies firmly at our feet.
Scientists believe that the CoronaVirus is an infection that has “jumped” from wildlife, most likely bats, to human beings. This kind of jump from the wild to humans has probably happened throughout history. In the past, the person who was infected by this jump from wildlife probably died or infected a small number of people in their village, who died, and that was the end of the virus in humans. Today, a person who is infected in one country one day could be anywhere in the world the following day coming in contact with far more people. The very mobility that gives us the opportunity to travel widely and see the world contributes greatly to the spread of disease.
But there is another factor. The degradation of our environment, the fact that we humans encroach more and more on areas where we previously had no business, puts us in greater contact with wild animals and puts stress on its creatures themselves. The stress lowers the immune response of the animals harboring a virus that they had previously kept in check. The virus multiplies. The animals are caught and caged in markets, stacked one on top of the other, further increasing stress and the animal sheds more virus. People buy these now sick exotic animals for food or as pets, and somehow the virus makes its way to the human. At least that is the theory as it now stands.
It is not an act of G-d, it is an act of humankind. It highlights the urgent need for the world to be less cavalier in how we treat the environment. It is a warning, perhaps from G-d, that destroying habitat and degrading the landscape not only damages the earth but damages people as well.
No, G-d is not punishing us or causing our problems. On the contrary, we can be sure that G-d is with us in our struggles, in our fears, and in our suffering. Countless individuals and communities, throughout the generations, have turned to G-d for comfort and strength. Danger, challenge and fear are part of the human condition. We like those who came before us, can turn to G-d and to one another, to provide comfort, to give us courage to endure through hardship and to give us strength and wisdom to meet the challenges of the future.