Rabbi Sam Bregman: Coronavirus is like a biblical plague – But hardship brings vision, clarity and growth

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The coronavirus pandemic has hit the world like a plague of biblical proportions. As a rabbi and father, I have to admit that nothing in my spiritual training or experiences in life quite prepared me for the dramatic changes we’ve all experienced in the past few weeks.

Like millions of people around the world whose houses of worship have closed, I am unable to go to my synagogue in Miami because services have been canceled to prevent the spread of the virus. I take comfort knowing that our Creator is everywhere, but praying with my family in our living room is not the same as going to my Orthodox shul.

I am both a rabbi and a lawyer and though I do not formally lead my congregation in the prayers, I miss the contact with my fellow worshippers and my regular routine of gathering with them in prayer and Torah study. My school-age children at first appreciated their unexpected vacation from classes, but would welcome the chance now return to their studies and their friends and get out of the house.

ACROSS FAITHS, RELIGIOUS RULES BENT AS VIRUS ALTERS WORSHIP

As we steadily bounce from news conference, to website headline, to Facebook rumor, it is easy and almost forgivable for all of us to be swept away in the tide of worry for both our present and our collective futures.

It’s important for us all to remember that the changes wrought on our lives by the pandemic are temporary. Panicking and focusing on our nightmares will not help us get through the coronavirus plague.

One of the worst things that can happen to a person during a time of protracted and extreme crisis is the loss of the ability to pause, reflect and think deeply. We must not lose that ability.

When we are safe in our homes and have washed our hands yet again, it is vital that we connect to words of truth during these historic days and seize the opportunity of the moment.

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The Jewish tradition teaches that although nobody pines for hard times, the reality is that time periods of extreme hardship afford the opportunity to attain outsized and disproportionate personal growth even more than during the good times of life.

In fact, this is the deeper meaning of a famous Biblical verse (Exodus 1:12)” “As much as they would afflict it, so it would increase and so it would spread out.”

Beyond describing the miraculous growth of the Jewish nation in Egypt in response to Pharaoh’s harsh decrees, the Sfas Emes and other classic Torah commentators see in this verse a lesson that applies to our collective experience in this epoch in world history.

The periods of pain, challenge and hardships in life can reveal to us unparalleled opportunities for growth, giving and achieving disproportionate closeness to our Creator and His creations.

Another proof text that speaks to this idea is an ancient Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 15:7). The ancient Jewish sages note that the human eye does not see from the white of the eye, but rather from the black.

Of course, the rabbis did not intend this as a lesson in optometry. Rather, this Midrash is conveying that it is from the dark moments a person experiences in life that we can attain the greatest vision, clarity and growth.

At the end of the day, during a pandemic or otherwise, much of life boils down to this question:

What will you choose you see and focus on? I use the word “choose,” because the ability to direct our mind’s eye is within our control.

es, the coronavirus is frightening, but we don’t have to sit around and feel sorry for ourselves. Each of us can still choose to see the opportunities around us to give, expand and connect to others during this time.

We can convert this period of dread into one in which we conquer new territories in our lives.

Do you realize how many people who were previously “impossible to reach,” including corporate CEO’s and celebrities, are currently sitting at home and responding to emails and direct messages?

For those unsure where to begin, perhaps ask yourself: What can I give? What can I contribute? What do I have or what do I know that can be a solution for someone else’s problems right now? How can I improve someone else’s life?

The answers to these questions may unlock the secret to recycling this period of incalculable struggle into a springboard towards achieving ever greater heights.

But there is no need right now to stagnate personally, professionally and emotionally.

For tens of millions of Americans, like it or not, the call of the hour is to pivot and reinvent ourselves. We have no choice but to reboot, despite our understandable fears.

I’ve observed that the coronavirus has led many of us to now live with the deep dread and depression of knowing we may unknowingly be ticking timebombs of potential harm to our loved ones. Indeed, it is frightening to consider that at one point, there was a “patient zero” who unwittingly set off this entire pandemic.

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From the Jewish perspective, another understanding is also in order. There is an ancient axiom that “the measure of doing good is 500 times more than it is for the opposite.”

As such, if one human being is capable of bringing about such an incalculable amount of damage and havoc to the world, imagine how much goodness and healing even a single human being is capable of creating if he or she can marshal their abilities correctly?

May we each merit to attain much clarity and serenity in the days and weeks that lie ahead, as doing so carries ramifications not just for each individual and the fulfillment of his or her own potential, but for the salvation and destiny of the entire world.

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The plague of the coronavirus shall pass and someday be only an awful memory. Let us pray for the heroic doctors, nurses, first-responders, medical researchers, workers keeping our food stores and vital services open, and government officials who are all doing everything they can to get us through this crisis.

And let us, of course, pray for those stricken by the coronavirus to recover as speedily as possible. The Jewish prayer for the sick is called the Mi Sheberach and is traditionally recited in the synagogue when the Torah is read. Our synagogues are closed now, but I extend a heartfelt Mi Sheberach to all stricken by the coronavirus at this trying time.