At Gehinnom’s Table

While Standing (Six Feet Apart) on One Foot
April 2, 2020

I am frustrated and angry.

There is a well-known Hassidic tale that goes like this: ‘What will it be like in the world to come? It is said that evildoers would be punished by not being able to bend their arms. The chasid queried Divine Justice, saying that this was no punishment. “Well, they will not be able to eat,” answered his master. But the chasid countered, “Let them sit opposite each other and then they can feed one another with their outstretched arms.”

In this crisis, we are all symbolically sitting across from one another with our arms outstretched. We are immobile and pretty much stuck in one place. The parable, though, fits.

There are too many people in this crisis who think they are beyond and above the rules and guidelines that will contain this disease. They go to their church services or minyanim by the hundreds with the sure and certain belief that God will take care of them and not allow the disease to affect them. They go to Spring Break and expect to be immune. They use religion as a magical incantation, really no different than those who throw magic bones to divine the future. They are sitting at the table with their hands outstretched and they have opted out of society – metaphorically if not literally.

In all crises there are those who do only for their immediate gratification. This isn’t new. An interesting example is that during the Los Angeles riots after the acquittal of the police officers who arrested Rodney King, South Central erupted in violence. But it had what I thought was a bizarre twist: the rioters were upset at the system, the apparent corruption of justice, and so forth, and reacted by burning down their own neighborhoods. They looted their own stores and the stores that their families had built over the course of generations. It made no sense then. But now it does.

When given the chance there are always those who go full Lord of the Flies. They will destroy everything in their path. Even if they are not in extremis they will devour like locusts.

The Talmud says, ‘Rabbi Hanina, the vice-high priest said: pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear it inspires, every man would swallow his neighbor alive.’ This is true in the best of times. We see what happens today when there is a world-wide pandemic. The ones who ‘swallow his neighbor alive’ are those who simply don’t care. Their hands are symbolically outstretched and they are unwilling to do what is necessary to help their neighbor stay safe.

Gehinnom is what happens in the world to come when only you matter. When all this is over, I doubt very much these people will brag about how they intentionally ignored the warnings nor will they boast about how independent they were and how they ‘stuck it to the man’ – to use a 70’s phrase. I don’t think they will. Forget God’s judgment. The judgement of the ones sitting on the other side of the table will be painful enough. It will be the worst punishment of all: the revelation of their real selves to all the world – something we try to hide but, in times like these, the mask slips off and may never be able to be put back on.

Yes, I am frustrated and angry.