By Rabbi Rayzel Raphael
It has not escaped my attention that the crisis of the coronavirus has ramped up between Purim and Passover.
Purim, like Yom Kippur, is when we read a story about chance. The tables get turned for the better — the Jews are saved not destroyed. We acknowledge that fate can change at any given moment and we pray for it to turn in our favor.
We are also headed into Passover where it took 10 plagues to get us out of Egypt. Yes, people died with each plague and we learn that we don’t sing Hallel because the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea and their lives also belong to the Holy One. Yet that story of liberation has fueled many a tradition and given many hope.
There is another story that provides perspective at a time like this; I’ve read it on Yom Kippur though it’s a Zen Buddhist story not a Jewish one:
One day in late summer, an old farmer was working in his field with his old, sick horse. The farmer felt compassion for the horse and desired to lift his burden. So he freed the horse to go to the mountains and live out the rest of his life.
Soon after, neighbors from the nearby village visited, offering their condolences, and said, “What a shame. Now your only horse is gone. You won’t be able to work the land and prosper! How unfortunate you are.”
The farmer replied: “Maybe so, maybe not. Who knows? We shall see.”
Two days later, the old horse came back, rejuvenated, after meandering in the mountainsides and eating wild grasses. He came back with 12 new younger and healthy horses, which followed the old horse into the corral. Word got out in the village and it wasn’t long before people stopped by to congratulate the farmer.
“How fortunate you are!” they exclaimed. “You must be very happy!”
Again, the farmer softly said, “Maybe so, maybe not. Who knows? We shall see.”
The next morning, the farmer’s only son set off to attempt to train the new wild horses but was thrown to the ground and broke his leg. One by one villagers arrived to bemoan the farmer’s latest misfortune: “Oh, what a tragedy! Your son won’t be able to help you farm with a broken leg. You’ll have to do all the work yourself.”
The farmer answered, “Maybe so, maybe not. Who knows? We shall see.”
Several days later, a war broke out. The emperor’s men arrived in the village demanding that young men be conscripted into the army. The farmer’s son was deemed unfit because of his broken leg. In the teahouse, the villagers again commented, “What very good fortune you have!” as their own young sons were marched away. “You must be very happy.”
“Maybe so, maybe not,” the farmer replied. “Who knows? We shall see.”
As time went on the broken leg healed but the son was left with a slight limp. Again the neighbors came to pay their condolences.
“Oh, what bad luck. Too bad for you!” But the old farmer simply said his same refrain.
As it turned out, the other young village boys died in the war and the old farmer and his son were the only able-bodied men capable of working the village lands. The old farmer became wealthy and was very generous to the villagers. They said: “Oh, how fortunate we are. You must be very happy,” to which the old farmer replied, even now, “Maybe so, maybe not. Who knows? We shall see.”
This is how I’m approaching the virus.
Yes, at the moment it seems apocalyptic. People are buying things in a frenzy; many deaths are predicted; the stock market crashed; and the government doesn’t know what to do. But I’m an optimist at heart, and I have let my mind wander to what if.
What if COVID-19 …
Inspires international cooperation between scientists, and we are able to use that in the future with other diseases?
Spurs Israel to find a vaccine to offer to its enemies and peace breaks out?
Catapults us to the future where we see technology as a true gift to keep safe and us connected?
Alleviates some souls from suffering who have just not been able to exit life yet?
Teaches us to cooperate across borders?
Allow children see their aging parents with more vulnerability and treat them with more respect and love?
Gives us time to make art and music, meditate and pray?
Shows us new ways to help and care for each other?
Inspires billionaires to step up and fund more?
Encourages more compassion and solutions for the poor, disabled, elderly and mentally ill?
Exposes the cracks in our health care system, uniting us to fix them?
Gets us to try new recipes and waste less food?
Fosters new leadership to take us to the next stage of our evolution?
Maybe so, maybe not. Who knows? We shall see.
May our experience during this time open our hearts even wider with compassion as this year’s Passover story reveals a deeper level of meaning. May we all be liberated from the plagues, and be stronger in the future as we navigate through the narrow places.
Rabbi Rayzel Raphael is the spiritual leader of Darkayna and has a private practice for lifecycle events in the Philadelphia area.