Never has humanity experienced so palpably and unambiguously a feeling of collective fate. The common experience of facing danger and suffering disrupts our faith in life and evokes questions of meaning and existence. I would like to think about these days of COVID-19 by reflecting on the ideas of "fate" and "destiny" based on the thought of the Jewish religious thinker Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993).
Humanity’s battle against the coronavirus has succeeded in crossing borders and surmounting walls. From East to West we find ourselves in fear of the same invisible enemy, exposed to the questions of fate and suffering. Nature demands that humankind join hands in the battle against the coronavirus, and the need to come together is stronger than ever. Although the awareness of the collective fate that has been forced upon us has the potential to mark a new kind of partnership for humanity as a whole.
“Contagious diseases” and “great epidemics” have accompanied humanity from its earliest history and have impacted all of aspects of society—politics, economy, beliefs—and at times determined the size of the world’s population. This year’s epidemic—“the corona epidemic”—is but another episode in humanity’s war against its fate, an ongoing struggle.
The question of human suffering has always played a major role in religious thought and still does. It is the question Moses asks as he pleads to God, “Pray let me know Your ways,” and by Job as he cries out, “Let me know what You charge me with.” It has stirred philosophers and theologians, since the days of the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, to ask how it is possible to comprehend such an enormous natural calamity, if not as the result of the sins of humanity?
Facing a natural calamity such as the coronavirus epidemic subjects us to the hand of fate, one which has no easy explanation. Humanity, Soloveitchik wrote, experiences fate as “being bound up in the chains of existence, [and] stands perplexed and confused in the face of the great mystery called suffering." This is a most appropriate description of life during a plague, in the shadow of an invisible virus, when the fear of our death and that of our loved ones becomes real. “The sufferer wanders lost in the viciousness of the world, with God’s fear spread over him and his anger tensed against it; he is entirely shaken and agitated. His agonies are devoid of any clear meaning, and they appear as satanic forces, as outgrowths of the primal chaos that pollutes the creation whose destiny it was to be a reflection of the creator.” (Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 6)
In contrast to this experience, there is another experience: the awareness that a person has a destiny. The experience of “existence under the awareness of destiny” relates to humanity’s active existence: “[W]hen man confronts the environment into which he has been cast with an understanding of his uniqueness and value, freedom and capacity, without compromising his integrity and independence in his struggle with the outside world. … Man is born as an object, dies as an object, but it is within his capability to live as a ‘subject’—as a creator and innovator who impresses his individual imprimatur on his life and breaks out of a life of instinctive automatic behavior into one of creative activity.” (pp. 5-6)
Judaism teaches human beings that their mission in life is to turn fate into destiny, to turn a passive existence into an active one—to move from being an object dictated to by powers greater than he or she, to a subject who determines his or her own path and meaning in the world. There is a “covenant of fate” that bound the people together facing a situation that was forced upon them, facing their fate. Out of the experience of individual suffering, the people can learn that their suffering is shared by all. The readiness to enter into the covenant of fate—the willpower of individuals to take responsibility for the community, to join together in times of distress, out of a sense of obligation and responsibility—is worthy of honor and recognition.
The other covenant, the “covenant of destiny,” is entered into when the shared bond between people is not the product of common suffering but rather a shared ideal, the desire and readiness to enter into an agreement to lead an ethically elevating and worthwhile life. The “covenant of destiny” is one that people have to choose with their free will. This shared covenant is "an active experience full of purposeful movement, ascension, aspirations and fulfillment." (p. 65)
I would like to think that the aspiration taught by this Jewish tradition—to transform fate into destiny—can become a message for all humanity. In these days, when humanity must enter into a “covenant of fate” to cooperate to fight the threat of the virus, we can find the power of the spirit to transform this covenant and partnership into a “covenant of destiny” for the elevation of all humankind.
An all-inclusive covenant of destiny would seek to jointly create an inspiring and noble foundation for life and survival, one in which humanity’s involvement is not only a response to distress but part of its ability to become a partner in the greatest project of all—its own creation, that is to say, humanity’s creation.
To put this in biblical terms, a covenant can be created today that represents humankind’s readiness to respond to God’s call: “Let us make a human being!” In the traditional midrash, God is calling to the angels to join Him in the creation of humanity, but contemporary interpretation offers an alternative approach: It is as if God says to human beings before they are created, “You and I together will create humanity”—and human beings become God’s partner in their own creation. The next step is for this unique covenant to be transformed into a covenant of destiny, which has the potential to give new meaning to the concept of a partnership of all humanity.