A year and a half later, it almost feels impossible to remember life before COVID-19. It is bringing out the worst of us—and the best of us. This is consistent with the Jewish concept of yetzer hara and yetzer hatov. Yetzer hara is the evil inclination within us; yetzer hatov is the inclination for good within us. These are two natures that inhabit us when we come to faith in Messiah. We have our old nature that continues to rear its ugly head, and we have our new nature from the Ruach Hakodesh (Holy Spirit). In Romans 8:17-25, Paul talks about his inner struggles and wrestlings when he says, “The good that I want, I do not do, but the evil that I do not want, this I practice.” There is this struggle within us, and the winner is the nature we feed. When we attend to the good nature, then yetzer hatov prevails, but if we attend to the fleshly nature, then yetzer hara will prevail. Paul goes on to say in Romans 7:24, “Miserable man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—it is through Messiah Yeshua our Lord!” In the battle between the flesh and the spirit, there is victory in Yeshua!
The war within each of us also rages in the world. A symptom of the brokenness in our world includes the invisible invader, COVID-19. That is why it is appropriate to look to the fifteen Psalms of Ascents, particularly the first: Psalm 120. During your quiet time, read these psalms with an open and contrite heart. They will be instructive and speak words of comfort and goodness to you no matter where you find yourself at the moment.
Psalms of Ascents in Hebrew are Shir Hama’alot. A word for steps in Hebrew is ma’alot, which corresponds to the fifteen steps in the temple which the priests ascended (Ezekiel 40: 26, 31), one for each of the Psalms of Ascent. Ma’alot is also a technical musical term that instructs and guides the recitation of these psalms. Each has a spiritual as well as a physical connotation, related to going up to the House of the Lord.
Let’s look at Psalm 120:1: “In my distress I called to the Lord and He answered me.” The psalmist knows the distress he is experiencing. We also know that this is common to humankind. We find ourself in distress. The psalmist begins by providing the antidote, a healing salve, a remedy for our distress (kind of like a vaccine!).
In the Hebrew of verse 1 we read: “To the Lord (el Adonai), in my distress, I called and God answered.” There is a common pattern. We often wait until our wits’ end and then only do we go “to the Lord” (el Adonai) to call upon him. There is not a set way as to how He answers; sometimes it is an answer in silence, in what we least expect, or in insisting that we “wait upon the Lord.” It may not be our desired answer or our timing, but He answers in accord with His will. God answers each of us according to a particular way that speaks to us personally. The key is to go first (not second and certainly not last) “to the Lord.” Go to God! El Adonai! The distress that arises from COVID-19 or other stressors, may be produced, or exacerbated, as derived from the Psalm, by deceit, alienation, and disharmony.
The tongue is deceitful. Who can know it? It could be that the psalmist is the victim of another’s deceitful tongue, or it could be that he is a victim of his own. Who can tame it? It is one of the smallest organs in the body, yet one of the strongest. It is placed between two lips to guard it, and when it pours its venom, it hurts like sharp arrows and hot coals.
In this pandemic, we see too much divisiveness and finger-pointing, slander and denigration of others. We see people blaming the government, the medical community, the media, China, Russia, Israel, politicians, globalists, nationalists, political parties, and each other. This is not the time to blame. This is the time for our “better angels,” our yetzer hatov, to rise up and say: “Let us join together and help others: the shut-ins, the elderly, the needy, the hungry, the lonely. And we are seeing plenty of that help, as well. This is what it means to not just be hearers of the Word, but doers of the example of what Yeshua taught and did.”
Isolation, as some are experiencing in its various degrees, has led to alienation which can compound distress. We are disconnected from our loved ones, relatives, friends, social groups. Some are forced to watch from ailing friends and family members decline, and even die from afar. Domestic abuse has increased. Sheltering together is the breaking point for many marriages. Separating alone for long periods breeds discontent and brings out the worst in us. Our coping mechanisms do not always prevail. Many people become reckless and fed up with the constraints caused by a year of restrictions. The love of many wax cold, indifferent to the marginalized and compromised. This results in the greater spread of the “enemy” – both the virus and our yetzer hara. Worries and misinformation about the virus spreads as fast as the virus. Many are poisoned and deluded to embrace lies and conspiracy theories. The Devil’s handiwork weaves a web which alienates us further from our community and even our family members.
“Too long have I dwelled with those who hate” (Psalm 120:6). This is true, especially when you are the target of discord. It can be very unsettling. This is a real stressor to think that people detest you. But love dissolves disharmony—not human love but Godly love, which is facilitated by going to God – el Adonai – first. Then the focus is not on us individually but for the neighborly care we demonstrate to others by exhibiting Yeshua’s golden rule, and embracing His parable of the Good Samaritan.
Look at what the psalmist says in the midst of lying tongues and alienation and disharmony. “I am peace” (ani shalom). He does not say “I am at peace,” but as clarified in the Hebrew, “I am peace.” Can you confess that and say ani shalom?
A time of distress can be a time of ascent, of going up. How are you filling your time? Are you arguing with your loved ones? Blaming? Feeling upset with others because of their political affiliation or their indifference? Then this is the time to go up to God. Make Aliyah to him. “El Adonai!” We should capture this time and grasp it as an opportunity. Go to God first, and then we can say, “ani shalom!” You can rest your stressors in Him, and see how is He solving it for you – even if it may not look like it at the time.
When there is distress in our life, the evil side of us says (according to the dearly departed former Chief Rabbi of England, Jonathan Sachs), “Who caused this to happen to me?”
But our yetzer tov retorts: Let’s join together and as a community seek to make this a better place for those who are suffering. Let us go up to God and then in all our distress that surrounds us, we will be able to say boldly, ani shalom! I am peace! Those who are “peace” are spreaders of peace, which is more potent and more contagious than COVID-19.
This article was written by MJTI COO Rabbi Elliot Klayman. For more by Rabbi Klayman, read his recent articles “Nasso: Sixty-Three Years Later,” “Light of the World,” and “Gilgamesh, the Flood, and the Garden.”
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