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Chief rabbis take on COVID-19

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“We have never had greater technological control of the human condition, and yet at the same time, one tiny little virus has brought humanity to a standstill. It’s dramatic.” So says Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth.

He was in an online conversation with Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein on Sunday, 13 September. The two of them unpacked the spiritual lessons we might glean from COVID-19 as we approach Rosh Hashanah.

Sacks points out that in Psalm 8, our true power in the universe is expressed in the words, “What is man that You are mindful of him?”

“We’re absolutely tiny, and we know now how tiny we are, and I don’t think previous generations really realised that,” he says.

“They realised there are us and the stars, but I don’t think they realised that there are billions of galaxies, each with a billion stars. We are terribly tiny, yet G-d has made us little lower than angels.”

Sacks says Judaism is effective at living with this paradox because it’s capable of listening to truth across multiple perspectives, unlike the Greek and Hellenistic faiths which inform much of Western society today.

“For Plato, the ultimate human situation was contemplating a harmonious world of truth,” Sacks says. “For Jews, the standard situation was at least two people having an argument.”

The pandemic has better enabled us to see the hand of G-d in our world, Sacks and Goldstein say.

Says Goldstein, “Our journey over the past few months has been a spiritual one. In the past six months, the world has gone through a trauma that has affected us medically, financially, and religiously. However, it has given us an opportunity to look at our lives through different eyes and see the presence of G-d in the human universe.”

One of the key lessons which have emerged over the past few weeks is the paradox of the human condition, they say.

“The Sages said that if human beings feel low, they should recall that all creation was undertaken for them,” said Sacks. “They are the crown of creation. But if they ever feel too arrogant, they should remember that even a gnat preceded them in creation.”

We see both of those things today, Sacks says.

“This year, the Templeton Prize [an international award for harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the questions of the universe and human’s place and purpose in it] went to an American scientist called Francis Collins for leading a project to map the human genome,” says Sacks. “He began the project as an atheist, and ended it as a religious believer. I find that fascinating. Here is a scientist who on purely scientific grounds looked at the human genome and realised that someone must have created it.

“It’s extraordinary to think that people discovered that in every human body there are one trillion cells, that in every cell is a nucleus, and in very nucleus a division, and in every one of those is a copy of the human genome consisting of 3.1 billion letters of genetic code.

“It’s fascinating to see an atheist be persuaded of faith from science alone.”

The rabbis believe that the pandemic has highlighted just how frequently we fail to appreciate what we have.

“We were in danger of taking everything around us for granted,” says Sacks. “It’s a huge mistake and reminds me of an exercise I used to use when speaking to audiences.

“I would take a piece of paper and put a black dot on it, hold it up, and ask what they see. They all said they saw a black dot, but I asked them to consider how much is really covered by the dot. You only notice the one dot, but take for granted the 99% of white paper.”

It speaks to how we take for granted all the good, but only notice the bad.

“In a pandemic like this, we’ve stopped and noticed the good again, the wonderful things we hadn’t seen before. We were getting blasé, things were getting too easy. Things won’t be easy for the next 10 years, and I hope we learn to foreground the background which we don’t typically notice,” Sacks says.

Goldstein says we also need to see the interconnectedness between people, something we might not have fully appreciated in the past.

“We cannot see ourselves as isolated. One of the things we’ve come to appreciate which teaches us this is the concept of prayer,” he says. “On the one hand, it’s private and personal, but on the other, it’s communal. We are individuals in prayer, but we stand together before G-d.”

Sacks illustrated this contrast by referring to earlier crises in world history, namely World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, and the end of World War II in 1945.

“The responses to these two events were completely different,” Sacks says. “After 1918, the West tried to act as if the war and pandemic hadn’t happened. It wanted to be back where it was, living in an ‘I’ based society. The result was the ‘Roaring Twenties’, wild parties, and a very selfish society.”

The end result was the Great Depression, economic fallout, the growth of Nazism and fascism, and, a mere 21 years after the war to end all wars, the world was at war again.

“That is a key lesson of how not to respond,” says Sacks. “1945 was different. Britain enacted the Education Act, which ensured everyone had a secondary education, an act of major inclusion. America made legal provision to support those who had made sacrifices in the war, and its foreign policy offered loans to the shattered countries of Europe. People were driven by a sense of ‘we’.”

The end result was 75 years of peace, Sacks says.

“It’s that clear. If we go back to selfish society, we will have learned nothing from all this. We have to become more collectively responsible, developing a stronger sense of common good.

“I really believe that Jews are a good example of this. Everything holy in Judaism is communal. Davening is ‘we’, and even when we’re saying, ‘I’ve sinned’, we speak in plural and say, ‘we’ve sinned’.”

“A communal emphasis is what the world needs right now.”

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