When there is a pandemic, people suffer in body, soul, and financial distress. It is worth remembering that which our Sages taught in the Talmud (Brachos 5a): “If a person sees suffering is befalling him, he should examine his deeds to see what he must repent for, as it is said: (Lamentations/Eichah 3:40) ‘Let us search and examine our ways, and let us return to the Lord”.
The Jerusalem Talmud says (Taanis 3:4) that there was once an epidemic in the city of Tzippori in the time of Rabbi Chanina, and the people of Tzippori were complaining why the merit of Rabbi Chanina’s righteousness did not protect them. Rabbi Chanina told them: “In the generation of Moses there was one man Zimri who sinned, and for the sake of this one Zimri an epidemic claimed the lives of 24,000 Israelites, and the merit of Moshe Rabbenu did not protect them. We have so many like Zimri in our generation, and you expect my merit to protect you?!”
With repentance, it is possible to stop the epidemic. There was once an epidemic in Viznitz, and the holy Rebbe Menachem Mendel Hager of Viznitz zt”l led the Neilah prayer in the synagogue on Yom Kippur. When he came to the words of the verse “return, return from your evil ways – why should the House of Israel die?!”, he turned around to face the congregation, and he screamed out these words to their faces with tremendous emotion, and all the congregants cried and repented, and the epidemic ended.
Along these lines, the Rambam writes (Laws of Fasts, ch. 1), that whenever an epidemic comes, people need to know that this is a result of their sinful deeds, and repentance will remove their suffering. If, however, they are not inspired to recognize that this is a sign from Heaven to repent, but they rather say it is only a natural coincidence, this is the manner of cruelty, because this causes people to continue to sin, which leads to more suffering, as is written in the Torah (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:27), “And if, despite this, you still do not listen to Me, still treating Me as happenstance, I will treat you with a fury of happenstance, adding again seven [chastisements] for your sins.”, as if to say that I will bring you more suffering as an answer to your claim that it is mere coincidence, and I will add fury to that coincidence.
The Sefer HaChinuch explains (Mitzvah 169) that this is why God commanded someone suffering from tzaraas (Biblical Leprosy) to go to the Kohen (priest), because every illness comes to inspire repentance, and traditionally, the Kohen helped inspire Jews to repent and atone for their sins. Therefore, it is also a mitzvah for the Kohen to quarantine the leper for several days, in order for the sinner to meditate and contemplate his misdeeds during his time of quarantine, so he can think of all that he needs to repent for.
According to this idea, whenever we suffer even small sources of pain or inconvenience we have to immediately examine our deeds. In the Talmud (Arachin 16b) our Sages ask “how far does suffering go?”, and they answered “even if one reaches into his purse and tries to take out 3 coins, and only 2 coins come into his hand, that too is considered suffering”. Rebbe Isaac of Komarno zy”a often mentioned in his writings in the name of the Baal Shem Tov zy”a, that the intention of our Sages here was to ask what degree of suffering should a person consider that it comes to inspire him to repent, as this is the purpose of suffering. They answered that even very slight suffering and inconvenience is brought upon a person to inspire him or her to repent. The way Hashem works is that in the beginning, He will send a person some small amount of suffering or inconvenience as a hint to him to repent. Only if someone is a total fool who fails to recognize this, then God will need to send him even worse suffering to wake him up to repent.
It is recorded in the name of the holy Rebbe of Tzanz, zt”l, that when our Father in Heaven sends us suffering, He is like a Father who hits His son out of love for his son, because he wants to teach the son to return to the proper path. If the son is wise, he understands that this is for his benefit, and he will immediately tell his father that he accepts upon himself to try to better his ways, and then the father does not need to strike him anymore.
It is also told in the name of the Tzaddikim, that when you whip a horse, he runs faster the more he is whipped, because all he sees is the whip that is hitting him and he wants to run away from it, and he never turns his head to see who is whipping him, and the rider rides faster as the horse runs.
This is what King David said in Tehillim (Psalm 32:9), “do not be like a horse, like a donkey who does not understand”, meaning we should not act like horses and donkeys who do not know how to turn their heads to see Who is hitting them, rather we should be like human beings who have intelligence to understand Who is punishing them, and why they are being punished.
This is particularly so in our time, when we must be particularly careful to avoid being influenced by irreligious people who believe that everything is a coincidence. The Chofetz Chaim zt”l explained the teaching of our Sages (Mishnah in the end of Tractate Sotah) about the end-times at the footsteps of the Messianic Era, when they said “the face of the generation will be like the face of the dog”. If someone throws a rock at a dog, the dog chases the rock and bites it, and he does not recognise who threw the rock at him. This is how our days are, the footsteps of the Messianic Era, because most people do not set to heart to look to God Who sent this suffering to inspire us to repent.
This concept is hinted to at the beginning of the Book of Leviticus/Vayikra, which speaks of the sacrifices that came to atone for the sins of Israel. The word “Vayikra” (and He called) has a small letter “alef”, and without the alef it reads “Vayakar” (and it so happened), which is a term of “coincidence”. This hints to us that when God calls out to a person because of his sins, He hides Himself, and it is possible to mistakenly believe that this is only a coincidence.
However, Tzaddikim like Moshe Rabbenu understood this call, as it is written “and He called to Moses”. However, by the wicked Bilaam it is only written “and God happened (vayakar) upon Bilaam” (Numbers/Bamidbar 23:4), because the wicked believe everything is coincidence and meaningless, thus they remain mired in impurity and sin.
This is a lesson for all generations – when Our Father in Heaven calls upon us through suffering to return to Him for our own benefit, each and every individual must accept upon himself a good resolution to begin to better his deeds, and in this merit we will be worthy to everything good. Moshiach NOW!!!