Illustration: Coronavirus COVID-19 by Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS, CDC - PHIL [Public Domain]
“It's astounding in many ways how one topic can completely consume the entire planet but that's what's happening. Of course I'm talking about the coronavirus pandemic. The question is how do we understand what's going on. Is it possible to understand why Hashem is doing this?”
Rabbi Mendel Kessin, “The Reason For The Coronavirus Pandemic, And How To Protect From It,” March 22, 2020
Rabbi Mendel Kessin, a leading expert on the Ramchal, spoke from the isolation of his home on the inner meaning of today’s events in a profound lesson taught last week, pointing out that worldwide phenomena are not happening “coincidentally.”
Rabbi Kessin, who received smicha (ordination) from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, asked, "How are we to understand this?" We are not blessed with nevuah (prophecy), which could reveal with certainty the meaning of such a global phenomenon as this pandemic. However, the rabbi explained that using chochma (wisdom) is, in some ways, superior to prophecy, as taught by chazal (our sages). Through implication and deduction, we can use human intelligence, wisdom and intellect to grasp and explain a great deal.
Using relevant sources and prophetic works, Rabbi Kessin examined today’s planetary phenomenon, what they suggest about the messianic progression, and how we can protect ourselves while doing what is required to further the purpose of tikkun (rectification and Redemption). Viewing the nature and the impact of the pandemic on civilization in the context of hashkafa (the Torah worldview), reveals what our sages collectively teach us about how G-d runs Creation for its ultimate objective: the reunification of his Oneness with all humanity.
Current Pandemic Brings Ultimate Good
Using a midrash (Midrash Rabbah Shir haShirim 2:13) from Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba, he explained that the line “The fig tree has put forth its green figs,” referred to the transgressors of Israel who perished during the three days of darkness in Egypt. This alludes to a great plague during which many will perish which will come to the world shortly before the revelation of the messiah. Such a plague is, indeed, a pandemic. But is its purpose just to punish evil-doers or is it more profound?
Two basic premises underlie the Rabbi’s discussion. First, nothing that occurs is an accident — not a global pandemic or the illness of even one person. Secondly, G-d loves mankind and, particularly, the Jewish people. Therefore, all that happens is done for the benefit of mankind, though we may perceive it as a calamity.
The Rabbi contends that the pandemic we face is required for the ultimate good of the imminent geula (redemption). The mission of the Jews has always been to rectify the world through the performance of mitzvot (commandments) and teshuvah (repentance). However, when the Jews have failed to follow G-d’s commands and to repent for their failings, a third method is used to bring about rectification: yissurim (suffering).
How does this pandemic further the objective of the Redemption? What obstacles still stand in the way? Rabbi Kessin explained that G-d wants nothing more than to redeem humanity. The rectification is nearly complete but there is an almost insurmountable obstacle. In these final days, there is an unpaid debt that society owes due to several terribly destructive behaviors that corrupt man’s nature and, thereby, denigrate G-d, in whose image man was created.
Prosecution and Judgement In The Heavenly Court
This payment of debt is conceptualized in the form of a prosecution and judgement in the Heavenly Court. Proceedings against mankind’s sinful behavior are instigated by the satan (the angelic prosecuting attorney) through promotion of justice and temptation. His job is to defend justice; the final Redemption can only come when the demands for justice have been satisfied. That requires kapora (atonement).
Of course G-d is not beholden to the satan; yet, G-d must accommodate the system of justice that He Himself created. Close to the end of time, the prosecutions are many and grievous. What are the arguments, the obstacles, that provide the satan “the ammunition to keep the Redemption at bay” and which require atonement?
The first is zima (immorality, corruption, depravity). People are corrupting their own spiritual nature. Homosexual marriage, human trafficking, the mass consumption of pornography, pedophilia and such have eroded human dignity and degenerated the internal Divine spark.
Secondly, justice demands atonement for sinat hinam (baseless hatred), fostered by lashon ha’ra (slanderous speech). G-d seeks the achdut (unity/brotherhood) of humankind. Because people are created in G-d’s image, they are filled with greatness. But the hatred inspired by slanderous speech debases the majesty of G-d Himself and the rabbi clarified that He is enraged by such behavior. Such disunity obstructs the function of society.
How can people function in a godly world with such animosity and inability to work for the common good? We see clear examples of this particularly in the realm of politics and social media. Society is “split down the middle” and the divide seems unbridgeable.
A third prosecutory argument stems from civilization’s ubiquitous and pervasive immersion in materialism — physicality — and the pursuit of pleasure. Humans are steeped in gashmiut (corporeality) while ignoring ruchniut (spirituality). We avidly pursue the luxurious vacation, that second home, the acquisition of things.
The Role of Pestilence in G-d’s Plan
Rabbi Kessin connected today’s pandemic to G-d’s method to bring about atonement for sin. Unleashing a viral “designer drug” with an active ingredient only 40 nanometers in size — four times a billionth of a meter — G-d has provided a mechanism to mitigate sins and foster atonement. How?
Historically, past deverim (plagues) have been more deadly with far higher morbidity than the current COVID-19 virus. By example, the outcome of the Black Death, a bubonic plague which killed 75-200 million people, as well as the Spanish flu, which took the lives of 50 million, was to cause death. But COVID-19 has a different purpose, according to the rabbi.
At the time this article is being published, the virus has killed over 60,000 people, just over 5% of those infected. Rabbi Kessin detailed the role of this pandemic in the Divine Agenda: Invoking the Heavenly Tribunal’s need to refute the satan’s claims against human behavior, the collective suffering of the world caused by this illness itself brings atonement for both the Jews failure to fulfill the Will of G-d and society’s corruption and immorality.
This pandemic also provides an even greater impact to its suffering: the anxiety provoked by pachad mavet (the fear of death). When a grievous sin is judged by the Court to be deserving of hovah mita (the death penalty), the rabbi explained that the “death sentence equivalency” of the fear of death may substitute for actual death. Rather than subject people to innumerable deaths such as happened during the historic plagues, G-d is bringing the crushing fear of death instead.
The rabbi pointed out a recent example of this phenomenon which occurred in 1990. Referring to the concept of a "Creation Clock," i.e., the idea that each day of Creation is equal to a thousand years, the sages of the Talmud have stated that the world will exist for 6,000 years — six days on the Creation Clock from a Sunday through a Friday. By the reckoning of this mystical clock, this corporeal world will end when Sabbath, the seventh day, begins. That year will be the Jewish year of 6000 or 2240 in the Gregorian calendar. The year 6000 is tantamount to the onset of the Sabbath when existence itself will be transformed and both a higher consciousness and a less corporeal existence come to pass.
The year 1990 was equivalent to chatzot (midday Friday afternoon) on G-d’s Creation Clock, a turning point at which we were closer to the holy Sabbath than to the mundanity of the weekdays. At that time too, fear of death engulfed Israel during the Gulf War of that year. The scud missiles fell, the population feared for their lives, and, according to Rabbi Kessin, the Heavenly prosecution’s case against the Jews was mitigated by the death penalty equivalent: the fear of death. Not one person died from the missiles, though the threat and the attendant fear remained, removing obstacles to the progress of the messianic process.
The Impact of Slander
During this pandemic, much of the world is experiencing a lock down due to fear of illness and subsequent death. This measure also serves to reduce the incidence of immodesty and curtails lashon ha’ra (denigrating speech). Not only are social situations far less prevalent or even impossible but the isolation and subsequent anxiety wrought by quarantine lower the impulse to engage in frivolous and harmful expression in cyberspace as well.
Why is derogatory speech so bad? The rabbi taught a profound lesson based on what G-d told the Jews as they stood terrified on the banks of the yam suf (the Sea of Reeds) while being pursued by the Egyptian army. “Watch what I do: I will fight for you. Be silent!” says G-d.
This command contained several powerful ideas. The Jews were actually unworthy of being redeemed from Egypt. When G-d appeared to Moshe at the burning bush, the Jews were on the 49th level of tumah (spiritual impurity), meaning that they were borderline irredeemable — the 50th level would have ended their prospects. They learned the value of holding their tongue when they were chastened by the warning to be silent — because there is no fate from which G-d could not save them if they refrained from denigrating speech.
“How do we understand this?” the rabbi asked. Generally, even if a person commits a thousand sins, he may not be judged with the harshest penalty of the Heavenly Tribunal. But, when a person speaks ill of someone, the satan is enabled to act. The perpetrator is singled out to have his own dark deeds examined. “His file is opened,” is the way the rabbi explained it. If he is found wanting, a case is opened against him and his fate will take a dark turn.
But G-d also infused this system with compassion. Within the framework of measure-for-measure justice, a person cannot typically be arbitrarily judged unless he denigrates another. “The only way the satan can condemn you, is if you condemn others,” the rabbi spelled out.
Where do we see this in history? The rabbi illustrated this through King Ahab, who never lost a battle because that generation didn’t engage in lashon ha’ra. Alternatively, King Saul lost many battles due to that generation’s lack of unity stemming from such negative speech.
The death of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students also highlights this fact. We assume it was due to their disunity and disrespect for each other resulting from lashon ha’ra. But what did they actually die from? Askara can be assumed to be diphtheria, a respiratory disease that asphyxiated them. Without breath, there is no speech. Labored breath discourages speech. We see now, as then, that unity and refraining from slanderous speech is required of us and protects us.
Two further allusions underscored the deep connection between speech and the repentance of mankind. The Hebrew word for plague, dever, has the same letters as the Hebrew word for speech, dibur. Additionally, today’s virus is known by the term “corona” which also means “crown.” Doing the behest of the King of the Universe, this pandemic assists in restoring the crown of G-d, the restoration of His presence in the world.
Anyone seeking further clarification and explanation of current events and the messianic process is invited to visit Rabbi Kessin’s website, torahthinking.com, for the complete “21st Century” series of video lectures along with 300 shiurim which deal extensively with the hashkafa of the Ramchal. His videos can also be found at https://www.torahanytime.com and on Torah Thinking on YouTube. He can be followed on Facebook at Rabbi Mendel Kessin.
The author has written extensively on Rabbi Kessin’s work; click here to read more of this writer’s work in The Jerusalem Herald.