A Maimonidean View of Why Coronavirus Happened
In my earlier post, "Why Did God Send The Coronavirus?", I pointed to Rambam's view (as written in his letter to the Jews of Marseilles), that the Destruction of the Temple happened because the Jewish People were focused on bad theology rather than on military preparations. I noted that a similar approach could be taken to the coronavirus pandemic. It's the consequence of global society not placing sufficient emphasis on medical preparations.
Now, a number of people raised an objection to this from Rambam's words in the Mishneh Torah. There, he writes as follows:
"It is a positive mitzvah of the Torah to cry out and to blow the trumpets whenever any danger afflicts a Jewish community... This is part of the procedure of repentance, for when difficulties occur and people come to pray, they realize that these happenings befell them because of their sins... and this will cause the troubles to be removed. However, if they do not pray, but instead say, 'Such is the way of the world...' - this is a cruel approach, that causes people to maintain their evil ways, and will bring further suffering." (Hilchos Taanis 1:1-3)
In response, I would like to point out that while there could well be differences in approach between the Mishneh Torah and Rambam's other writings, in this case there is no conflict between what Rambam writes in Hilchos Taanis and what he wrote to the Jews of Marseilles. As Rambam says, when tragedies happen, we must not just brush them off, saying "that's just how things are". Rather, we have to engage in soul-searching and introspection as to how we might have been responsible for it. With the Destruction of the Temple, Rambam does precisely this, and says that there was a neglect of military preparedness caused by bad theology.
With coronavirus, I proposed the similar wrongdoing of a neglect of medical preparedness. Just because it doesn't sound like a frum sin, like a lack of tzniyus or lashon hara, does not mean that it isn't a sin! And if you want it presented in frum terms: Just as there is a mitzvah of maakeh, to make a safety fence around a balcony, so too we are obligated as a society to make sure that we have the necessary precautions and medical equipment to deal with a pandemic. To the extent that countries and societies failed to do so, they suffered the consequences (and countries which were better prepared, such as South Korea, suffered less).
Imagine if someone falls off their balcony because they didn't install a proper fence. Do we need to think of what Lashon Hara they said to deserve such a fate?! It's not "attributing it to mikreh" to say that lack of preparedness is a cause; lack of preparedness is a serious shortcoming!
Some still asked that according to this, why does Rambam call for fasting and prayer? The answer is that according to Rambam, fasting and praying is what helps people (A) be human beings, feeling connected to the community and so on, and (B) contemplate where they went wrong.
All this is doubtless somewhat jarring to people who are not well grounded in Maimonidean theology. One must bear in mind that in Rambam's view, God does not spontaneously choose rewards and punishments for our actions; rather, He has set up the world such that correct actions generally lead to beneficial consequences, and vice-versa. I strongly recommend reading Menachem Kellner's essay on Rambam's concept of reward and punishment, which can be downloaded at this link.
There's another point to be made with regard to those who want there to be a more "spiritual" or "frum" message/reason in God sending coronavirus. What would such a message be? Sending something in order to send a message only works if such a message is clearly there. (It reminds me of those who creatively reinterpret the pesukim of Bereishis to match modern science, in ways that nobody has ever translated the pesukim before, and then claim that Bereishis is "teaching" modern science!)
What messages did God send us with coronavirus - that He doesn't want us to go to shul? Every shocking event can help us pause and engage in introspection, and there may be plenty of valuable lessons that we can choose to learn in this crisis, but there is only one absolutely clear and unambiguous message, which is that society needs to take the dangers of pandemics more seriously.
Incredibly, there are some people whose cognitive dissonance prevents them from seeing even that which is clearly true. On Friday, I had a long back-and-forth with one of the many charedi rabbanim who read this website. He insisted that coronavirus is a testimony to the amazing protective powers of the prayer and Torah of Rav Chaim Kanievsky and others, since the mortality rate in Bnei Brak has been so low, despite the crowded conditions! And he said that it was a pity that they stopped the shuls and yeshivos in America so early, because they would have been better protected had they continued.
I responded to him by pointing out some facts. Like that the low mortality rate is true in all of Israel, and it's because of Israel's healthcare system as a whole. And that within Israel, Bnei Brak and Jerusalem have been the worst affected. And even though very few have died so far, there are nearly two thousand sick in Bnei Brak, with new cases being diagnosed at a far greater rate than anywhere else, and the hospital there can't even receive any more patients and has to send them to other hospitals, and even those who don't die are likely to suffer considerable long-term health problems. And that the greater suffering of Bnei Brak is, to a certain degree, precisely because of the shuls and the yeshivos and the Daas Torah. And that in the US and UK, it's the "Torah" communities and rabbanim that are being the hardest hit.
But it was no use. Nothing that I said had any impact. As far as he was concerned, coronavirus merely confirms that Torah is the best hishtadlus against physical threats.
Of course, there are many people in the charedi community who would disagree with what this rabbi said. And there are some people in the charedi community who are ready to do some soul-searching - see this article for an excellent example. But as long as there are a substantial number of people in denial - and people in key positions who are in denial about the denial - there is a serious problem. The lack of concern and hishtadlus for pandemics, as well as the related lack of concern and hishtadlus for military and economic threats, will remain a danger for us all.* * * *
A reminder: Coronavirus has not stopped the Biblical Museum of Natural History from inspiring and educating people! We've been running live online tours for the last week, and they've been fantastic! As well as a brief "Highlights" tour, we also have six in-depth tours of different halls. You can sign up for our Pesach tours at www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org/live. Please share the word!