The world is trying to go back to normal. After weeks and months of lockdowns, quarantines, and social isolation, we are in a hurry to return to business as usual. But do we really have to return to normal?
Wouldn’t it be better to return to something better than normal—better than we were before the pandemic?
Social distancing and shelter-at-home orders created a Sabbath-like quality for the world. Businesses closed, streets without traffic, everyone home with their families—it was like the whole world started observing the Sabbath. It was, for me, a reminder that spirituality and spiritual connection exist in the spaces between things. When life is full of things, there’s not much room for experiencing spirituality. When things stop, when everything ceases, and we experience the quieting effect of the ceasing, that’s when there’s room for encountering God. That’s what meditation means in the Jewish sense—not an emptying of the mind but a cessation of “other” and an entering into the presence of the One. That’s also the real meaning of Shabbat. The work was completed, so God ceased. God is in the ceasing. A Sabbath rest still remains for the people of God.
The Bible says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” When the world stops, and we take time to be still, it’s an opportunity to know that he is God. Prior to the pandemic, we lived in a world that refused to heed that counsel. We lived in a world that never took a moment to be still and, subsequently, refused to know God. Then everything stopped.
Some religious teachers might be tempted to interpret the pandemic as God’s punishment on humanity. They imagine God as a vindictive judge as if the Coronavirus was a punishment for the sin of this or the sin of that. That’s not how I choose to understand it. I don’t believe the Coronavirus is punitive in any sense. Nor the locust plague in Africa. Nor any of the unusual phenomenon that we see happening around the world today.
The signs that came on Egypt in the days of Moses were not punishments, as if Egypt was more wicked than Mesopotamia and therefore had been singled out for retribution. Those signs were intended to reveal HaShem to the world and to test hearts. Egypt was not being punished. Instead, Pharaoh was being tested. The question was not one of punishment. The question was, “Will Pharaoh acknowledge God or not?”
That is the test for the world today as well. Are all these things that have befallen us merely random coincidences? Will we stick to agnosticism and atheism and materialist reductionism? Or do we acknowledge that God exists and, as a result of that revelation, repent from our own wickedness and turn to righteousness?
If we believe that everything comes from the hand of God, then how could we turn a blind eye to the current circumstances of the world and say, “These things are merely coincidence and happenstance.”
In addition, the signs on Egypt revealed what was in Pharaoh’s heart. The pandemic has had the same effect on leaders and politicians around the world, from China to the United States. The crisis has stripped away the false veneers and revealed the hearts and character of world leaders. More than that, through the acrimonious world of online social discourse, as one ideology pits itself hatefully against another, it has revealed the heart and character of all of us. It’s a test. A worldwide test. Like any test, there’s a way to pass and a way to fail.
Humanity could emerge from COVID-19 many steps closer to the kingdom. We could come closer to the revelation of God. We could emerge from this disaster a kinder people, more enlightened, more in tune with spiritual realities. We could emerge from the COVID-19 Era wiser and gentler, with a heightened sense of empathy for the suffering of others and a concern for the wellbeing of our neighbors. The pandemic could impart to us a sharpened sense of wonder at the gift of life and the enjoyment of life’s simple delights such as the company of friends or the privilege of worshiping with brothers and sisters.
Or we could emerge from COVID-19 a meaner-spirited people, an angrier people, embittered against this ideology or that one, possessing a heightened sense of xenophobia and paranoia, even more hardened and calloused to the spiritual world and the hand of HaShem, as it says, “And Pharaoh hardened his heart.”
It’s a test of our hearts. The choice belongs to each one of us. Choose life. Don’t harden your heart. But when you see these things happening, lift up your heads. Your redemption draws nigh.