03 The Jewish response to plagues
Chananya Weissman

March 12, 2020

Recently a rabbi declared that the coronavirus is due to homosexuality, and he predictably received a great deal of hate-filled condemnation from those who are far removed from the Torah. Personally, I do not believe that this is the reason behind the plague, though his opinion is not outlandish from a Torah standpoint. The Midrash states in multiple places (first in reference to the flood that destroyed the world in the times of Noach) that whenever homosexuality is enshrined in the law, plagues come to the world that do not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked.

One is welcome to draw whatever conclusions they wish, but to condemn an Orthodox rabbi for stating an opinion that is based on Torah sources, simply because you don’t like how it stacks up to contemporary secular views of morality, is unacceptable. That is his job.

Unfortunately this is not an isolated example, and it is not limited to those who harbor hatred for Orthodox rabbis. I have seen many instances of rabbis attributing tragedies such as terrorism, illnesses, and untimely deaths to various spiritual failings they perceive among the Jewish people. The response even from those within the Orthodox community has been mixed at best. It is fairly common for rabbis to be lambasted for presuming to know why something tragic has occurred, and the rabbis are often spoken of with tremendous disrespect – itself a treacherous spiritual road.

I do believe that sometimes rabbis fall into the trap of blaming every tragedy on their “pet peeve” of choice, be it lack of modesty, Shabbos desecration, lashon hara, or various other assorted sins. The tendency for people to make strong declarative statements when they are only speculating hurts their credibility in the eyes of many people, brings scorn upon the Torah, creates needless new rifts among the Jewish people, and fails to inspire better behavior. While the Torah commands every Jew to measure his words, rabbis are especially warned.

At the same time, we need to accept the following two principles:

  1. There is indeed a spiritual cause behind tragedies and plagues.
  2. It is our responsibility to try to determine this cause, even if we may err.

The Torah sources behind these principles are too numerous and vast for this short article – indeed, the entire Torah is predicated on these concepts.

Several plagues and many “natural” disasters are mentioned in Tanach. Most of the time the Torah or the prophets themselves provide the spiritual cause, and Chazal dutifully fill in the blanks in the Talmud and Midrash. Even tragedies that we should expect based on the ways of the world, such as even a single Jew falling in battle, are viewed as unacceptable events signaling a spiritual problem that must be addressed (Yehoshua Chapter 7).

The Gemara and Midrash constantly connect both world and personal events to reward, punishment, and God’s master plan. This is the normative Jewish approach – there is a spiritual cause and effect for everything. To argue otherwise, that things “just happen”, and it is senseless or imprudent to search for meaning, is to go with Hashem with happenstance. The Torah repeatedly rebukes those who fall into this trap. Those who respond to world events with this attitude incur God’s wrath, drive away His protection, and bring only greater troubles upon themselves until they get the message the hard way (Vayikra Chapter 26).

The Gemara teaches that even the town official who decides the order in which people will draw water from a well – a position of trivial authority – is appointed by Heaven (Bava Basra 91B). The Gemara further teaches that if one reaches into his pocket to retrieve a certain coin and mistakenly pulls out the wrong coin, or pricks his finger and loses a drop of blood, it is a punishment, a microscopic death sentence for having lost a tiny portion of his life.

So retrieving the wrong coin or stubbing one’s toe is a sign from Heaven, but the corornavirus is no big deal? Just another flu? How can it be that so many Jews, even religious Jews, see all that is happening before our eyes – the virus being only a small part of it – and shrug it off?

One can only do this if he doesn’t want to see the truth. The human mind has an incredible capacity for ignoring or twisting divine messages to suit one’s desires. Some have even claimed that the splitting of the sea was an entirely natural event, and nothing more than a lucky break for the Jews. These sort of people see countries all over the world on the verge of collapse and say “these things happen every so often”, “people are overreacting”, “it will pass”. They see prophecies being fulfilled and pretend it is simply a series of predictable events (after the fact, of course).

The notion that a tragedy “just happens” or that disasters are a normal part of life is antithetical to Judaism. One cannot learn a single page of Torah if he harbors such a mindset. He can read it, but it will not penetrate him, and he will have to learn the Torah’s lessons a harder way. Much of our nation, even those who are outwardly religious, currently fall into this category, and time is running out for them to wake up.

The second principle is that it is our responsibility to try to determine this cause, even if we may err. When a plague beset Israel near the end of David’s life, he made several incorrect assumptions as to its spiritual cause. He is not faulted for this. An honest search for the truth is always noble, even though by necessity there will be mistakes along the way. A refusal to conduct the search, on the other hand, is reckless endangerment.

Those who try to determine the spiritual cause of a tragedy will sometimes be wrong; those who excuse themselves from thinking about it will never be right – and they will never get the message.

Some will argue that we cannot decipher God’s message, and it is irresponsible to try. This false humility presupposes that God is incapable of communicating to us in ways that we can comprehend, and, even worse, that He will punish us for failing to receive messages that we were unable to comprehend. This is severely distorted, self-defeating thinking, if not heresy.

Yet many outwardly religious Jews believe this. It is a convenient way to blissfully go about one’s business without thinking too much about what is happening, what it really means, and making painful changes to one’s routine. Eventually, though, the bill will have to be paid.

Massive bills around the world are finally coming due, with interest. The nations of the world are being shaken up, and it’s time for the Jews of the world to be waking up. We have a national destiny that transcends mundane personal concerns, and you are part of this destiny.

God is sending very loud messages. Those who choose not to hear them are making just that – a choice. The onus for that will be entirely on them.