Moses and the virus

MARCH 21, 2020 BYGERALD MCDERMOTT

My friend Pesach Wolicki is an Orthodox rabbi in Israel.  This week he published an article in the Jerusalem Post that addresses the question many  Jews and Christians are asking, Is God trying to tell us something through this pandemic?  I find his answer to be compelling.


It has to do with repentance and humility, two things that Christians are admonished to search in Lent.  Perhaps Rabbi Wolicki’s reflection will help us Christians ponder the irony that this crisis has arisen in our Lenten season.


“We live in uncertain times. The coronavirus pandemic is spreading rapidly. At great cost to their economies, governments are enacting state of emergency measures to bring the contagion under control. The numbers of sick and dying are rising sharply daily.


“When the world experiences unprecedented crises, people seek answers. For people of faith, this search for answers often expresses itself in attempts to determine the reasons that God is doing what He is doing. And herein lies a grave danger.


“Over the past few weeks, I have seen articles in Jewish and Christian mass media that have made a wide range of claims about coronavirus. One writer quoted a rabbi stating that coronavirus is God’s way of punishing the evil Chinese, as well as the Iranians. A video being circulated quotes rabbinic leaders saying, without equivocation, that no God-fearing, Torah observant Jews would be infected. Yet another published “news” item claimed that since “corona” means “crown”, the pandemic is a clear sign of the imminent arrival of the Messiah.


“For people of biblical faith, the restoration of Israel after two millennia of exile is a clear sign that God is still faithful to His promises. We are living in times that were yearned for by Jews before us for nearly 2,000 years. But this perspective must not mutate into conjecture about what God will do next or what the reasons are for the spread of a deadly disease.


“’So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by. Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.’” – Exodus 33:22-23

“This verse does not mean, merely, that God knows things that He has not told us yet. This verse tells us to be humble. To be very careful before declaring that we have God all figured out. One of the fundamental stances of faith is humble submission to the fact that we do not know what God is doing until the dust settles.

“After the sin of the Golden Calf (Ex. 33), Moses asked of God, “Show me Your Glory.” In other words, Moses asked to understand how God is known in the world. God responded that humans are incapable of seeing God, of understanding Him, as living beings. God went on to offer Moses a glimpse of Him.


“While God is acting, while He is passing by, our eyes are covered. We are blind. It is only after events have occurred, after God’s next move in history is completed, that we have any vision at all. We only see God’s back. The Hebrew word for back, AHOR, is not the Hebrew word for the physical part of the body called the back, GAV. Rather, AHOR connotes what is behind; what has happened in the past.


“The message is powerful. While events are taking place in our world, we are blind. We have no way of knowing what God is doing and why He is doing it. Our understanding of God begins after the event has passed. We see only God’s back.


“To claim knowledge of what exactly God is doing is arrogance, not faith. I should note that in none of the articles or videos that I have seen that claim to know divine reasons for coronavirus did I see the words, “perhaps” or “maybe”. This unqualified certainty about God is nothing short of heresy. Faith does not demand, or even encourage, trying to figure God out. To declare that we know God’s thoughts is not faith. It’s blasphemy.


“Jewish tradition teaches us that when tragedies befall the community, we are required to look into ourselves and seek ways to improve our behavior. Uncertain times call for humility and introspection. The assumption is that we do not know why tragedies happen and therefore must use unsettling circumstances as an impetus towards greater piety. Declarations that tragedies befalling the community are the result of someone else’s sins, that we the faithful are doing just fine, represent the polar opposite of this sentiment. Faith-based eschatological conspiracy theories are expressions of arrogance, not faith.


“This same arrogance had led to many in the Torah observant community to be lax in carrying out the directives of the Health Ministry and the prime minister. Confident that God will protect them, they continue, as of this writing, to gather in larger than legal numbers and instruct their schools to continue operation. Jewish tradition teaches that, “We do not rely on miracles”. Yet, these reckless spokesmen for God do not care.


“Rather than setting the highest example of the concern for human life and society, irresponsible religious leaders are confidently declaring that God will protect us. Where is the humility?


“As people of faith, our primary concern at this time should be for the victims of the virus, and for the safety of everyone in society. Arrogant public statements about which enemies God is punishing and how wonderful and protected we are because we know what God is thinking, reveal the unfortunate dark side of faith.


“It’s time for all who have faith in God to show compassion and humility rather than blasphemous arrogance.”


Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is a writer, speaker, and consultant in the field of Jewish-Christian relations. He lives in Bet Shemesh.



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