“Life is wild and nothing is permanent. Now deal with it.”
Every morning for the past few days I have received the same query from numerous readers of Spirituality & Health magazine: Where do I find comfort in the Bible in this time of pandemic? Here are four biblical verses that speak to me for our time and all time:
- Now the earth was tohu va-vohu (Genesis 1:2)
- Everything is havel (Ecclesiastes 2)
- We must accept the good as well as the bad from God (Job 2:10)
- I happen as good, I happen as evil, I, YHVH, happen as all this (Isaiah 45:7)
Let me take up each in turn and see how it can help us cope with our current situation.
Now the earth was tohu va-vohu (Genesis 1:2)
Most English Bibles render this verse this way: “the earth was empty and without form.” Sadly, this misses the far more dynamic nature of the Hebrew.
Tohu va-vohu is better rendered as “wild, chaotic, and unfixed.” In other words, nature is in constant flux and lacking all permanence. While it is true that we speak of Laws of Nature, it is also true that beneath the seemingly ordered world of creation is a seething dynamic creativity that at times and without warning shatters our neat and tidy existence with a ferocity we can scarce imagine. The Covid-19 pandemic is just such a shattering.
Torah challenges our desire for order by stating from the outset that order—permanent order as opposed to temporary calm—just isn’t in the nature of things. Life is wild, and to insist otherwise forces us to take refuge in a fantasy of how we wish things were; a fantasy all too easily shattered by reality.
Everything is havel (Ecclesiastes 2)
Havel is another Hebrew word poorly translated into English. Most Bibles render it “vanity,” “meaninglessness,” and “futility,” leaving us with a view of Ecclesiastes that is dystopian and nihilistic. But this is a mistaken understanding of Ecclesiastes based on the misreading of the Hebrew.
Havel means “impermanent,” “transient,” and “without surety or certainty.” Havel is associated with mist or morning dew: something that arises for a brief time and then dissipates. What is vain and futile are our attempts to trap the mist or insist that the dew remain long after its time of fading. We make life meaningless when we insist that meaning is fixed and permanent rather than fluid and ever changing.
Ecclesiastes seeks to liberate us from all of this by telling us that the true nature of reality is impermanence. This is a natural extension of tohu va-vohu. Life is wild and nothing is permanent. Now deal with it. How? Ecclesiastes is clear: create a world where people eat wisely, drink moderately, dress simply, love freely, work joyously, and wash their hands regularly. (OK, I added that hand washing bit).
I happen as good, I happen as evil, I, YHVH, happen as all this (Isaiah 45:7)
How can a good God allow this deadly pandemic to happen? There are only two responses: either God is not strong enough to stop the coronavirus or God is not good. Isaiah’s position is clear: God is not good, or more accurately, not only good.
God—the Hebrew here is YHVH from the verb “to be” and best translated by the gerunds “being” and “happening” rather than the noun “Lord”—happens as all reality: light and dark, good and evil, etc. God is all there is. What God is saying to Isaiah and through Isaiah to us is that God cannot be restricted to anything but must be understood as everything. The implications of this understanding are made plain in our fourth verse.
We must accept the good as well as the bad from God (Job 2:10)
If God is everything—what the Taoists call the ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows of everyday living and dying—then the truly faithful must be open to everything that happens not as reward or punishment but simply as what is. It isn’t that we have to like what is happening, but that we have to realize that all that happens comes from God because God is the Happening of all happening.
When you understand this, the question Why does God allow this suffering? is replaced by a very different and far more important question: What can I do to alleviate the suffering I see around me?
When we realize that life is wild and chaotic, that nothing is permanent or certain, that God is the Happening happening as all happening, then we are free to open ourselves to what is and turn our efforts to making it better.
Want more? Check out Rabbi Rami’s column, Roadside Musings.