Why Did God Send The Coronavirus?
Why did God send the Coronavirus? Several people have been confidently sharing their knowledge about this.
Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, for example, insists that it's clearly a punishment for the evils of the Internet. (Incidentally, he's not even referring to pornography - he says that he's talking about how if something "not nice" is occurring in one place, it is reported all over the world. One rather suspects that he is referring to blogs that blow the whistle on rabbinic abuse.) His "proof" is that the evils of the internet are something that the older generation should have been more vigilant about - and so it is middah keneged middah that the older generation are more susceptible to coronavirus.
Yet if there's anything that's obvious from the current situation, it's that the Internet has been helpful in combating the pandemic and its effects. It's via the Internet that people were alerted to the dangers of coronavirus, and it's via the Internet that people have been able to continue their jobs and their Torah study at home. In fact, it was precisely those communities which didn't have internet that were most badly affected. So, aside from Rav Wachtfogel's explanation being distasteful, I think that in contrast to him claiming that it's obviously true, it's plainly wrong.
Many other rabbis, including some with much broader followings than Rav Wachtfogel, have claimed in more general terms that coronavirus serves to humble man. They say it should remind us of the limitations of science and technology.
Personally, I think that this also gets things backwards.
Let's consider the Destruction of the Temple. There are all kinds of sins that are described as being the cause of the Destruction. But Rambam, in his letter to the Jews of Marseilles, says something seemingly very different:
This is why our kingdom was lost and our Temple was destroyed and why we were brought to this; for our fathers sinned and are no more because they found many books dealing with these themes of the star gazers, these things being the root of idolatry, as we have made clear in Laws Concerning Idolatry. They erred and were drawn after them, imagining them to be glorious science and to be of great utility. They did not busy themselves with the art of war or with the conquest of lands, but imagined that those studies would help them. Therefore the prophets called them “fools and dolts.”
Rambam, following the rationalist approach, held that there is no such thing as spontaneous reward and punishment, which God each time chooses to insert into the world. Rather, the mitzvot are the path to intellectual, moral and societal perfection, while aveirot detract from that. To the extent that there is reward and punishment, it is the natural consequence of one's actions. Thus, Rambam's view is that the people were pursuing astrology - which he explains to be the root of idolatry - and as a natural consequence, did not engage in the material, worldly efforts that would have helped them have a defensible kingdom. Rambam is not arguing with the idea that the Destruction was a punishment for idolatry; rather, he is explaining what, in his view, this actually means. They lost because they were militarily weak; and they were militarily weak because they focused on bad theology rather than on genuine wisdom.
I think that Rambam's view fits perfectly with what we are seeing today. It does not require any special insight to see what the entire world is relying on, what is helping, and what will finally end this mess.
It's medical science.
In contrast to the rabbis claiming that this pandemic teaches us to lower our respect for science, I think it clearly teaches us to raise our respect for it. We are relying on medical science to help us know which dangerous behaviors to avoid. People who contract coronavirus are being helped by ventilators, medications, and other results of medical science. And we are all awaiting medical science to develop better cures and a vaccine. Nobody is expecting this to be like the Black Death, or the various plagues of cholera or smallpox, precisely because of modern science.
To this, one could add that the entire problem has been exacerbated by a lack of taking medical science into account. As the Sages say, "Who is wise? He that foresees that which will happen." There have been various experts warning about the risks of a global pandemic, or even about the basic shortage of medical equipment and hospital beds in various countries, and the people in charge didn't listen to them (which in turn is partly the fault of the general public for not caring enough).
So, following Rambam's approach to the Destruction, here we would say similarly. There's no need to view it as a punishment, in the popular understanding of the concept, but rather to see the consequences of ignoring God's laws of the universe. We've learned, the hard way, that we need to be better planned for the future. And we've learned, the hard way, that we need to care much more about advances in medical science.
May all the sick recover; may all those who have suffered losses find solace. And may all of us who survive, care enough to live more wisely in the future.
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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!