Posted on May 15, 2020 by Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck
A few years ago, MetLife ran a clever ad that featured an image of their iconic blimp with Snoopy and the word LIFE that highlighted the middle letters “IF.” Its tag line was, “Metlife, for the IF in LIFE.” Beyond good advertising, the ad offered sage advice. There is wisdom in being prepared for the exigencies of life. We all know this is true. Few if any among us could imagine not insuring our homes, our cars, or our lives. We know that things happen that are beyond our control and we are wise to do our best to mitigate their impact as much as possible.
Sometimes the chance occurrences of life are overwhelming, leaving us feeling powerless. Storms, floods, illnesses and pandemics can wreak havoc that is unavoidable. At such times, it can be very helpful to remember that there are limits to the impact of such events. Unquestionably, they rob us of certain options, but they do not change our fundamental ability to make choices.
We learn this important lesson from the opening words of parshat bechukotai, the second of the two Torah portions we read this week. Bechukotai describes the blessings that flow from following God’s laws and the curses that come from breaking them. The key to understanding the parsha is to be found in its very first word, “im,” which means, “if.” “If you follow My laws…” good things will happen. “If not…” disaster lies in store. “If,” here, indicates choice and control. Our fate is in our own hands, says the Torah, depending upon the choices we make.
MetLife taught us about the “if” of chance. The Torah teaches us about the “if” of choice. And here’s what is most important for us at this moment when the “if” of chance is having such a profound impact upon us in the form of this terrible pandemic. The “if” of choice is ever present and is even more important than usual.
It is not inevitable that the coronavirus will take a certain toll. That depends significantly upon the choices we make, as individuals and as communities. This is true of the physical aspects of this crisis, and equally of the emotional and spiritual dimensions. The challenge here is not to be underestimated. It takes a determined act of will to resist the temptation to relax our vigilance in maintaining social distancing, as is evident from the reports of those who are throwing caution to the wind because they have had enough of the restrictions and the economic losses they are causing. And it is also hard to maintain the disciplines of caring for our bodies through proper diet and exercise when we are beset by anxiety and fear. All of this is hard.
Bechukotai is helpful in this regard because it uses graphic and sometimes shocking language to paint mental pictures of the likely outcomes of our choices, thereby sharpening our understanding of what is at stake. The wrong choices will bring grief and misery. Choosing the good will bring blessing, joy, and prosperity.
We stand at a critical juncture in our battle against with the Covid-19 pandemic, and the choices we make now will be fateful. Life and death hangs in the balance for many. Good things will happen if we are vigilant and patient. We will reap the benefits of good health and pride in ourselves if we take good care of our bodies, minds and spirits. Rash and impatient steps will result in tragic and unnecessary loss of life.
It is easy to allow ourselves to dwell on the “ifs” of chance. They are so real and so weighty – indeed frightful and shocking. How much better it would be, though, if we were to make a concerted effort to focus our attention and intention on the “ifs’ of choice? If we would, I am confident that we will find great blessings, both now and in the by and by when this crisis passes.
Wishing you the peace, joy and beauty of Shabbat!
Rabbi Arnie Gluck