Open Letter to My Students in an Age of Pandemic: “Black Swans, Black Holes, and Why We Matter”

We are in the midst of a situation that Jewish tradition captures nicely as “ones.” Even though the transliteration looks like WUNS, it is, of course, pronounced OH-ness: a general term implying “force” – as being forced into a situation against our will. Most appallingly, the term denotes rape. Less appallingly, it is used legally to characterize a certain degree of liability. Suppose I let you use my home while I go on vacation. If you enjoy a candlelight dinner but accidentally set the house on fire, you are responsible. If a lightning bolt out of the blue burns down the house while you are out buying the candles, you are not. The cause of the latter misfortune is said to be ones: force majeure (in legalese), “an act of God” (the insurance companies say). The proper pronunciation is apt: OH-ness, as in “OMG: OH My God, how did this happen?”

Another term for the pandemic is “black swan,” a metaphor used humorously as early as 1694, when an anonymous work with the lengthy title, Ladies Dictionary, Being a General Entertainment for the Fair Sex : a Work Never before Attempted in the English Language gave as its example, “Husbands without faults (if such black Swans there be).” More seriously, it is used by economists to denote a totally unpredictable event that all the computer-generated algorithms in the world could not have foreseen. Black swans suck the stock market downward into dizzying depths – making financial black swans like the astrophysicist’s black holes: regions of space that absorb all light, leaving ever-growing blobs in space of deep dense darkness. That’s us, in the middle of the covid crisis: a black swan (Oh God, how did this happen?) and a black hole (so much darkness, when there used to be light).

Even black holes generate wisdom, however: in our case, how everything  leads to everything else. When we close schools, children stay home; if children stay home, parents miss work to care for them; if they are poor, their income disappears. Alternatively, major league baseball can’t start on time, so the soft market of ushers, vendors, ticket sellers, kiosks, restaurants and bars close down, maybe go out of business altogether. You get the idea. “The head bone’s connected to the neck bone; the neck bone’s connected to the shoulder bone” and so on. Ezekiel got it right.

We Jews say kol yisrael arevim zeh vazeh, “All Jews are responsible for one another.” Actually, the humanity worldwide is responsible for one another. We are all intertwined, we children of Adam and Eve. Why did the Torah teach about Adam and Eve? In order to assign all humanity a single set of parents, the Rabbis say. We are all family, it turns out. One of the reasons I chose to be specifically a Reform Jew was my admiration for classical Reform rabbis who insisted on this radical universalism. As the corona virus spreads, I pray for everyone (not just Jews), especially those who live on the margins of society and get routinely dropped off the real-life society page — left behind as historical footnotes that had to fend for themselves.

We also fear for ourselves, of course – at least, older people like me do. Early on, doctors warned me to avoid the gym, get groceries delivered, cut my own hair, attend no meetings – and I am one of the healthy ones. A woman I know is sick, maybe in the early stages of dying. Quite naturally, she asked to see her grandchildren. Should her daughter, the kids’ mother, take the kids to see her? What if their parting gift to their grandmother turns out to be the virus which assures (if not also hastens) her demise?

“Family systems” we call it. “Do not separate from the community,” Hillel reminded us. We do have a special connection to our own family, but we are increasingly a single “family system,” a single community, from which we could not fully separate even if we wanted to!

So much for the macrocosm., How about the microcosm – you personally, I mean? Personally, how are each of you doing? Black swans do more than drive the stock market downward. They fray our emotions, uproot our certainties, drive our state of mind downward into ever deeper eddies of vertigo. Acrophobia is “fear of heights”; aquaphobia, “fear of water”; agoraphobia, “fear of open spaces”; and now, we have, ones-ophobia, “fear of black swans,” of things spinning out of control — the discovery that we are not actually in charge down here – in a word, ones.

Tradition lists a very specific case of ones, however. The state of being affected by ones is the Hebrew passive-participle form, anus. When Jacob is forced by the famine to go down to Egypt where Joseph guarantees food, he is said to be anus al pi hadibbur. “forced by the word of God.” It is as if, sometimes, the hand of God can be found even in a black swan – an “act of God,” in a sense, after all.

I do not mean to say that God causes suffering so that we can benefit in the end, or even that we may learn something useful as a consequence. God just doesn’t work that way. But for those of us who will gratefully ride this swan to its bitter end, without ourselves or those we love getting hurt; for those of us who, thankfully, do not lose a job or have to wonder where the next month’s rent will come from; for you, my rabbinic and cantorial students, you who are charged with learning Torah not just from texts on parchment and paper but also from the vagaries of real life – you will that the dibbur, the voice of God, can speak to us in the depths of swirling vertigo no less than on the peak of Mt. Sinai.

Like the rest of the world, I too read the mainstream media to get the news. But those sources alone can cripple us. They only exacerbate the feeling of helplessness, endlessly reiterating the inevitable constriction of the social noose around our lives. In such an environment, it is our job to tune into another source of wisdom, the one that will never make the papers, the wisdom of Jewish tradition that becomes ever more necessary when all else fails.

Highest on my “alternative-wisdom” list are basic values like truth, kindness, decency, and love, that we used to think were as American as apple pie, until we discovered that the apples in the pie were increasingly rotten.  We need to say out loud, over and over, to everyone who will listen, that truth is not relative, expedient, alternative and fabricated; that ethical and scientific certainties are not just so much quicksand. We need to blow the whistle on a national ethos and rhetoric that has swamped kindness under a tsunami of cruelty and meanness. We need to combat the situation  where no one even expects decency anymore, least of all from those we elect, those with power; where, everywhere we look, love of others has come to mean others “who are like us,” just our own tribe.

The very heart of the monster is indeed tribalism, even as the very heart of the pandemic is the obvious demonstration that pathogens have no tribal map to instruct them where to go and who to spare: they are “equal opportunity deployers”; they spread their poison indiscriminately. Yes, there are enemies in the world; there is actual evil, God help us. But an enemy of Jews is an enemy to us all; evil toward others is evil toward Jews, sooner or later. America cannot stand alone: it too needs allies, friends, more outstretched hands – like the hand of God: Atah noten yad laposhim  we say in that final moment of truth that arrives as each year’s Yom Kippur at N’ilah. Poshim, mind you, “sinners” – all the more so, the good guys. But sinners can be good guys just as good guys can be sinners. In viral crises, we no longer get to hold people’s hands; we can all be good guys, Godly even, if we reach across the mandated 6-foot personal boundary as God does: mutually extending hands to one and all.

For in the end, we are all merely mortal. We will never know it all. We are not in charge down here. We should not be surprised by surprises. But equally, we should not despair, for modern Judaism, anyway — Zionists who founded Israel, and, once again (for me, anyway) my Reform forebears who charged into the morass of medieval Jewish prejudice and did away with it – yes, modern Judaism, anyway, has taught us that we are actors in history, not just passive recipient sufferers of the random black swans that interrupt the way we thought the world worked.

I believe with all my heart that the uniquely placed “we” who is ourselves — we cantors and rabbis, that is – are not powerless. We have been charged with the task of reminding people that God breathed a soul into us all. As the rest of the world falls apart, as even our very bodies are at risk, we at least have the certainty of our God-given souls, the part of us that rallies to provide truth, kindness, decency and love; the part of us that is buried so deep within that it can reach nowhere else but out, out into the world where we are all children of the single God, in need of one another more than ever.

Take your enforced time at home not just for zoom calls; use it to rediscover your soul. When you’ve had enough of the saturating sadness that makes the daily headlines, just stop reading it. Replace it briefly with the prayer book or with Psalms, to find some single line of eternity that you never knew was there — sometimes, even, something familiar that had its eternity tarnished but that now leaps off the page with new-found urgency, fairly shouting at you, “Don’t you see? This is really true! It really matters! It can sustain you.” Sing it, if you can; melodies sink deeper, faster, into our being. Share it on those zoom calls before and after meetings. Be grateful for the opportunity to be a rabbi or cantor whose expertise is the eternal verities that we call Godly, and the human soul that intuits them.



4 responses to “Open Letter to My Students in an Age of Pandemic: “Black Swans, Black Holes, and Why We Matter”

  1. Gary Bretton-Granatoor

    Larry, I have always thought myself blessed to be your student and that continues. Our colleagues have done the work of melachim caring for our community and the wider community. As your words touched me, I am sure they touched them as well. This is a constant reminder that we can never understand the will of the Holy One but we should never cease to be of service to the world God created.

    I don’t know if you saw this Hiddush from Leigh Lerner on RAVKAV recently but it has sustained me through this tragedy/opportunity and it frames the way that I have approached constructing my “virtual” Seder:

    Many years ago, a student asked the anthropologist Margaret Mead what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about hooks, clay pots or whetstones. But she didn’t. Mead said the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thigh bone) that had healed from a break. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You can’t run from danger, go to-the river to drink water or hunt for food – injured animals or humans become fresh meat for predators. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. A broken femur that healed is evidence that someone cared for the injured, treated the wound, took the person to safety and cared for them until they recovered. Helping someone through difficulty is where civilization begins, said Mead. (thanks to Rabbi Leigh Lerner for sharing this). Much love to you and I am grateful for your continued concern and Torah.


    Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor 917-941-3256 Skype: gary.bretton-granatoor Check out my website:


    • Oh Gary, how good to hear from you. Your words are insightful and welcome. Yes: our colleagues do exceptional work indeed — you very much among them. I did see the Mead citation and appreciated it as you do.

  2. Powerful, profound, kind. Thank you.

  3. Hi Larry,

    I’m just getting caught up on email and finally got to this. This is so powerful and so what I needed to read. I’m sure my colleagues and everyone else who has read this feels the same. Thank you, as always, for your beautiful, inspiring words of true wisdom.

    How are you holding up? How is Gayle doing? Is there anything you need or that I can be helpful in doing for you? You’re not too far away…

    All my best, Josh

    On Tue, Mar 31, 2020 at 11:45 AM Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ph.D. wrote:

    > lawrenceahoffman posted: “We are in the midst of a situation that Jewish > tradition captures nicely as “ones.” Even though the transliteration looks > like WUNS, it is, of course, pronounced OH-ness: a general term implying > “force” – as being forced into a situation against our will.” >

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