During an epidemic, people generally seek out segulos (charms) and kameios (amulets) to raise spiritual energies as an aid to protect oneself from the epidemic. We must remember, however, that the main mission a person has at such a time is to seek out what he must rectify in his own personality and lifestyle.
We must ponder upon that which we have always heard from our holy rabbis, may their merit protect us, who have taught us that during times of epidemics that took place throughout history in their own times, that illness is sent by Divine Decree in order to inspire us to repent of our sins.
During the worst periods of the cholera epidemic in the year 5591 (1831),Rebbe Tzvi Hirsch Eichenstein of Ziditchov zt”l saw that people were not repenting of their many sins that brought about this epidemic, he cried out to God said “Behold, I am offering myself as an atonement for all of the Jewish People”. At that very moment his soul left him and he left this world. The passing of the great Tzaddik of the generation inspired the people to repent, and then the epidemic totally ceased.
When epidemics were widespread in the days of Rebbe Yitzchak Isaac Safrin of Komarno zt”l, he published copies of the holy Kabbalistic volume “Adam Yashar” from the Arizal, which is a book of segulos and prayers for times of epidemics. However, he added his own notes and additions to the volume, which included words of inspiration to better our deeds, as this is the main thing.
It is related that during the cholera epidemic that took place in the days of the holy Rebbe Menachem Mendel Morgenstern of Kotzk zt”l, many people asked him for a protective amulet, but he refused to grant one. The chassidim insisted, and he finally asked that they bring him a piece of parchment and some ink with a quill, and he wrote four letters spelling “חלרע” (which can be a way to spell “cholera” in Hebrew) on the parchment. The chassidim imagined that this was the name of an angel who was appointed by Heaven over the cholera epidemic.
However, their Rebbe pointed out to them: “Remember, these letters are the initials of the Hebrew words of Confession ‘chatanu lifanecha, rachem aleinu’ – ‘we have sinned before You, have mercy upon us’.” By this, the Kotzker Rebbe wanted to teach them that the foremost thing we must do at such a time is to repent our sins.
Along these lines, we find an ancient story found in the Holy Zohar (Midrash HaNe’elam I:101a) that Rav Acha performed many segulos to stop an epidemic that was taking place in the Village of Kfar Tarsha. He fell asleep, and in his dream he heard them telling him from Heaven that he also needs to inspire the villagers to repent of their sins. When he woke up, he went and delivered a rousing sermon to the villagers to repent, and they accepted good resolutions upon themselves, mainly that they should not let any day pass without Torah study.
The truth is, the main element of repentance is making a positive resolution for the future. However, during an epidemic, it is easy to get confused because one hears many different spokespeople giving words of encouragement, focusing on many different messages. We might be inspired hearing these sermons, but in the end, we may find ourselves without any tangible and strong resolution that will stand solid. Therefore, each and every Jew must be careful to accept at least one good resolution in a time of crisis such as this.
Making a good resolution is a mitzvah, as our Sages taught (Bereishis Rabbah 70:1) from the verse “and Yaakov made a vow, saying” (Genesis/Bereishis 28:20) that this is a mitzvah for all future generations, that at a time of suffering we make a vow to accept upon ourselves some mitzvah.
Similarly, we find in the Book of Psalms (Psalm 66) that before Moshiach comes, the Jewish people will find themselves in a difficult situation similar to being imprisoned in a tower, and all of those who are inspired to repent will be worthy to stand strong, and when they will be redeemed, each one will say to God, “I will repay unto You my vows, vows my lips promised and my mouth spoke when I was in trouble” (Psalms/Tehillim 66:13-14).
We further find in the Book of Psalms/Tehillim (Psalm 76) that when God caused it to be heard from Heaven that there is an attribute of Divine strict justice, there will be a situation of “and the earth will fear and be silent”, just as it is during an epidemic, and then each Jew will say one to another “Vow and pay to the Lord your God”.
When a person promises to be strong and to perform one mitzvah that he never did before, then a good thought is considered by God as a deed, and it is considered as if you already performed the mitzvah. From this, a good angel is immediately created, who will be a good defender for you in the Higher World, and will rescue you from misfortune, as our Sages taught in Pirkei Avos (4:11) “whoever performs one mitzvah gains one defender – repentance and good deeds are like a shield against misfortune”.
The holy Rebbe Yaakov Aryeh Gutterman from Radzymin (1792-1873) zt”l once explained this by means of a parable. Just as when someone lights one candle in the darkness, the darkness is dispelled, so too if one accepts upon oneself one mitzvah, this will shine a spiritual light which will banish the spiritual prosecutions and forces of evil which darken our paths in a time of trouble or sorrow.
Even if someone already received a divine decree to die or to lose his livelihood, etc., it is still possible to be saved by promising to repent and to rectify oneself in some manner, for through this resolution one “changes his name” and he becomes a righteous person in that particular issue, and it is considered as if he became a totally different person, upon whom no such decree was made, as is explained in the Sefer Haikkarim (4:18).
However we may conduct ourselves during an epidemic or another time of trouble, to make pilgrimages to the graves of Tzaddikim, and to ask for blessings or segulos from Rabbis and Tzaddikim. All of this is worthwhile, as is explained in the Zohar (Zohar Chadash II:44a) that sometimes the Tzaddikim are able to nullify decrees of plagues even after they have been decreed. However, we must remember that before all of this we must do the will of the Creator Who brought the epidemic for the purpose of inspiring us to accept upon ourselves the yoke of the mitzvos. This is the best segulah there is!
It is possible to say that this is why God commanded us to make bells and pomegranates next to one another along the hem of the robe of the High Priest. This is a symbol to all of those who come to request the blessings of the High Priest at the time of their sorrow, that the sorrow is like a bell from God, which is ringing and alerting the Jew who is compared to a pomegranate, as the Talmud teaches (Eruvin 19a) that every Jew is filled with mitzvos like a pomegranate is filled with seeds, only we need to remove the thick shell of materialism that covers our souls, and to reveal the power and energies we have to fulfil the mitzvos.
As soon as we immediately commit ourselves to fulfil a mitzvah, we are already worthy to all good! Moshiach NOW!