too much to ask?
After 11 deaths in 11 days, I Had it Out with God
Part 1: BACKGROUND
After 11 deaths in 11 days, I had it out with God. I realized it was time for that conversation with the Creator, the One I had been putting off. Between widespread sadness, the busyness being rabbi to the rapidly rising number of really sad situations, and my growing anger at El Shaddai, the Most High, Supposed Healer of all, I knew I couldn’t put it off any longer.
So I made an appointment with the All Knowing Almighty to illuminate the inner struggle in my soul. Wanting to give the Blessed One the benefit of the doubt, and because I prefer to kvell and not kvetch, I set out to start slowly, sharing my sadness.
But right away, my release poured out as rage:
Part 2: ME
God damn You, God!
11 Deaths in 11 Days!
[God looked up, bemused. Remember, this was not the first time I took the Transcendent Torah-Giver to task.]
I’m so angry. At You, All Powerful One. My community has seen 11 deaths in 11 days and I’m angry. God damn You, God!
What kind of Divine develops a world defined, during the 21st century, by the deaths of so many people?
433,000 deaths. Here in America, of all places. In one of the most forward thinking, technologically astute, medically advanced countries in the world!?! How do You explain that?
Over 2.19 million worldwide. Dead. What the hell is going on with You, God?
Are we the modern equivalent of Noah’s greedy generation, destined to be the detritus of Your change of heart about humanity? Is it Your notion to renew the nonsense of Noah’s time, when You flooded the whole world on a whimsy to wash away the filth and forget about it?
Remember how that flood turned out? You immediately regretted the whole affair, recognizing the immorality of #ProjectBeginAgain. Soon enough You were promising that the rainbow in the sky would remind You never again to destroy the world… by flood (Gen. 9:9-16).
Are you cashing in on that carefully crafted caveat – “by flood,” seeking now to crush us instead by coronavirus?
God damn You, God! 11 deaths.
In my congregation, in just 11 days.
What’s Your endgame? Why all this death, God?
PART 3: INTERLUDE
[Soon enough I was spent, trembling too much from the rage that wracked my body.
I felt myself succumbing to my sadness, becoming a puddle of painful tears, tormented by the heartache pervading my people, and by the suffering and loss of life living amongst all people for much too long.
I also tried unsuccessfully not to forget that I too was personally wounded by the dying, death, and burial of my own mom Linda Kipnes that unfolded over there (on the East Coast), as I remained right here (on the West Coast), far far away from her bedside and graveside. I had to look on from a small square on a zoom screen.
In between the tears and anger I waited – hoping for, perhaps expecting – some sort of otherworldly utterance of acknowledgement, understanding, or even better, apology. I waited for God.
But I never expected what came in its place: Rage.
As I lay there on the floor, I was floored by God’s response. Rage. Charon apo, the Bible teaches, the Holy One’s nose burned brightly, igniting a torrent of unexpected proportions (Psalms 78:49). And God bellowed:
PART 4: The Holy One
Me? Me, you blame for this blasphemy?!
You think I planned for this pandemic? That I wanted the whole world to explode with exposure to this deadly disease?
You think I’ve been sitting around smirking, since My children began to die? That I was rehearsing my monologue with some newly-minted Moses and Miriam, about how I would destroy My children and begin again with them, like I once voiced in my relative youth to Moses on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 32:9-10)?
I could have. And perhaps I should have. Because you seem so egocentric, unable to see what is and to band together to beat it.
You think that the One who accompanied you through the wilderness in a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day would just leave you alone to confront this challenge, intentionally intending for 2.19 Million lives to end (Ex. 13:21-22)?
As I’ve told you before, death is the unintended consequence of granting you humans your precious free will. I might be Omniscient (all knowing) and Omnibenevolent (all good), but, by agreement and intention, I am no longer Omnipotent (all powerful). I released that power to you, My partners in Creation, so you could get out of the garden and enjoy the fruits of your labors and life. Out in an imperfect Existence, yes, because when I tried to pour My Divine Light into the world I created, its derivative nature could not contain the purity of my perfection. Rabbi Isaac Luria called it Shvirat HaKeilim, the shattering of the vessels. Your place on this planet became Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), elevating the sparks of brokenness. Yourselves.
So that means, at times, when the brokenness boils over, it’s not of My making – intentionally at least, and definitely not of My desire. As I whisper into your ears year after year through Unetaneh Tokef, that stirring High Holy Day prayer, “Some will live and some will die…” In order words, “stuff happens.”
And asking, “What are you humans gonna do about it?,” I offer you three paths forward- tefila (reaching in to find your moral center), teshuva (reaching out to repair relationships so you can focus on the third path), tzedaka (righteous giving and righteous work), in this case, excavating the tools I planted within you to quash this quarantine-inducing virus.
Yes, I always give you the tools to repair the rips in the fabric of Existence. Which you almost always collectively find reason to ignore.
Since the beginning, I’ve been trying to instill in each of you, any of you, the insight and understanding to beat this. I’ve been trying to convince you to cast off your conspiracy theories, to push off the politicization of mask wearing, begging you to listen to the kol d’mama daqa (My still small voice), speaking as clearly as can be via the voices of veritable experts, the scientists and medical professionals who, with scientific research and hard won medical trial and error, have found the keys to controlling this Covid-19 killer.
But you just won’t listen.
Instead, you allow yourself to be snowed by sinister politicians who, instead of putting your needs to survive before their own, again and again gorge themselves on power.
You allow yourselves to dismiss My divinely-inspired denizens of data analysis who demanded back in March, April and May 2020 that you open your minds: because this pandemic was assuredly more deadly than the common flu, that it had the potential to take out 200,000 of your beloved countrymen before you even began Yom Kippur’s break the fast. Which it did, negating the supposed knowledge of the naysayers.
But when you finally turned to Me, you foolishly followed false prophets, purveyors of pernicious piety, who were more interested in gathering people together in places of worship than protecting each person as their sole priority.
At this moment, I’m not sure I desire even the most heartfelt of your prayers. I only want you to survive. The old and young, frontline workers and essential workers, the poor and medically underserved, the black and brown and indigenous people who are suffering inequitably, and you. Yes, you too. All of you!
But why are you only now calling out to Me so intensely? Is it because this Covid killer is now hitting so much closer to home? Is that why you raise your voices to cry gevalt!?
You think you are at your edge when eleven of your people passed away in the same number of days? Your loss is nothing compared to Mine! 2.19 Million of my children. Dead. Each life My co-creation; each life brought into being intentionally, birthed B’tzelem Elohim (in My image) for a premeditated purpose: to bring benevolence and beauty, equity and endurance, to our shared Existence.
“Where was I?” you demand to know.
“Where were you?” I demand right back.
When the coronavirus was condemning the first hundred thousands around the world to a lonely painful death, where were you?
When the politicians, the science deniers, and the conspiracy quacks came calling, did you condemn the politicization of the pandemic and demand sane policies that protected people over profit, not just for the moment but for the long term? Where were you?
When brown and black people, indigenous and incidentally impoverished people, people like you who you prefer to think are not like you were dying by thousands,
– because your inequitable health care systems couldn’t and didn’t help them,
– because your “miracle medicines” were unavailable to them- handed out only to the higher ups,
– because My essential children had no choice but to go out to work because you deemed them essential to your economic survival… all the while returning them back to homes packed with people and a potentially infected few, because your policies condemn them to near poverty?
Where were you then? Did you care so consciously back then?
Only now when it hits close to home do you cry out vigorously.
God damn Me?
God damns you, I sometimes want to shout!
But I don’t. And I won’t.
Because I am your Creator, your Confidante, and the Source of your very lives. And against our agreement not to manifest My might so forthrightly anymore, I did act to try to help you.
I provided you with everything you needed to beat back this pandemic: the brains, the brawn, the brilliance.
I instilled within you the resources and research abilities, intelligence and intentions to beat this. And you did try to do so with warp speed. Now vigorously convince the anti-vaccine crowd, and more compassionately those who have well-earned reasons not to trust their government, that these vaccines are safe and necessary.
Your brilliance is beyond compare. You create and surround yourself with billion dollar defenses, intricate radar installations that tell you when turmoil is approaching to terrorize you. You trust those expensive defenses. Now it’s time to enlist the less expensive ones too.
All you have to do to stay alive is to stay home, stay away, protect the unprotected, and wear masks. Plan for the rest of the pandemic now. And the next one too.
Put your money where it’s needed instead where your mouths keep flapping: Strategically install straightforward defenses for everyone – medical, economic, quarantine – because each move, while a challenge to your economic well-being, is definitely proactively protective.
Instead of listening to your politicians and preachers and the people who live next door, who put personal privilege over mutual survival trumpeting “Every man for himself. Every person for themselves” – demand everyone do their due diligence.
You ignored the fact that each of you is interconnected to everyone else. Borders and bravado won’t protect you. But benevolence and brainpower, led by science and medical professionals, will.
I tear keriah at every funeral, said God, I attend them all – for people who adhere to every hope, creed, and religion imaginable. And the agnostics and atheists too. My Gown of Glory is now a shredded smock from all that tearing, testifying to the turmoil I feel at our joint failure.
So let’s stop damning each other. My heart is as broken as yours. And stop blaming Me. Spend your time instead praising plans and procedures, based in science and medicine, that spend money and support masks, and sustain the separations, so you all will survive.
Is that too much to ask?
Part 4: ME
I hadn’t been expecting that. Especially from God. The pain. The anger. But it made sense.
It was time to stand on my own two feet, to wipe away the tears, and to partner once more with the Transcendent Teacher of Torah. I carefully wrapped my Tallit around our Maker’s metaphoric shoulders, and pulling HaEil Hagadol Hagibur v’Hanora (the Great, Awesome, Wondrous One) closer to me – right here (pointing to heart) and right here (pointing to head) – I promised to stand up, speak out, and stop being cowed by apologists for falseness.
Then I turned myself to Kodesh haKodeshim (the Holy of Holies), the very intersection of faith and science, where, I remembered, the Holy One resides.
So here I stand.
Won’t you join me? Shabbat shalom.
People ask: Were these deaths related to COVID-19?
Yes! More than half of those blessed 11 died of COVID-19 itself.
The other deaths were clearly coronavirus-connected, pandemic adjacent. Some were placed in palliative care so quickly, so hospice could help them expire as humanely painlessly as possible, because their doctors were weighed down as they scrambled to care for those who had a better chance at living … because the hospitals were overloaded and the ICU’s were filled to capacity and even the ambulances aren’t able to arrive for an additional four hours.
And the rest of those deaths? Covid-19 kept their loved ones from flying cross country to bedsides and funerals, so that they lost their loved ones without the sacred opportunity to sit by their side as the dying journeyed from this world to whatever’s next. Instead they looked on from a small square on a zoom screen. It is so, so sad.
Rabbi Paul Kipnes is rabbi of Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, California.
Rabbi Sarah Rosenbaum Jones is an insightful, unforgiving editor who regularly elevates my raw material by carving out the chaff, commenting piercingly on unclear or questionable prose, and regularly lifting up wisdom lost among the weeds.
Of course, Michelle November, MSSW – co-editor of Jewish Spiritual Parenting, and Director of Admissions at de Toledo High School (West Hills, CA), and my wife – is my main editor who is always editing my writing even at times like this when she never saw the piece. That’s because, with her installed in my head and heart, I often know how she would edit. And she’s always right.