updated on October 4, 2020
By now you’ve probably heard that the President and First Lady have tested positive for COVID-19. If you have already offered prayers for them, you do not need to read any further. If you are not someone who prays, you also do not need to read any further. My words here are for those who are struggling with how to respond to the President and First Lady’s COVID status and are looking for some direction.
I’ve received some texts and emails from folks who are not fans of the President expressing great pleasure in this news. Some have asked if there’s a prayer that can be said that puts out into the universe the opposite of what the Mishebeirach, our prayer of healing, puts out there. Others have expressed their struggle, asking how can I pray for the well-being of someone who troubles me so much?
Judaism makes it quite clear: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls” (Proverbs 24:17). However, our tradition accepts the fact that when evil people come crashing down, it’s only human to rejoice. The Talmud (Megillah 16a) tells us how Mordechai, the hero in our Purim story, does just this:
Mordechai gave the wicked Haman a kick. Haman said to him: Is it not written for you: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls”? Mordecai said to him: This statement applies only to good people who make a bad choice here and there, but with regard to you it is written: “And you shall tread upon their high places” (Deuteronomy 33:29).
The Talmud (Berakhot 10a) also includes the powerful story of Berurya, the great Rabbi Meir’s wife:
There were these hooligans in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood who caused him a great deal of anguish. Rabbi Meir prayed for God to have mercy on them, that they should die. Why have mercy on these hooligans in this world!? Because God rewards some in this world, ensuring that there will be no rewards left for them in the world to come. They will spend eternity with no rewards. If they are punished in this world, then it is argued that there are rewards left for them after they pass away. Rabbi Meir wanted the hooligans gone and sent off to the world to come with nothing to look forward to.
Rabbi Meir’s wife, Berurya, heard her husband’s prayer and said to him: What is your thinking? On what basis do you pray for the death of these hooligans? Do you base your prayer on the Psalm 104 which says: “Let sins cease from the land” (Psalms 104:35), which you interpret to mean that the world would be better if the wicked were destroyed? But is it really written, “let sinners cease?” No, Berurya argues. It says “let sins cease.” (which is a stretch on her part!) One should pray for an end to the sinners’ transgressions, not for the demise of the transgressors themselves.
At the end of the verse Berurya cites, it says: “And the wicked will be no more.” She asks her husband: If, as you suggest, transgressions shall cease refers to the demise of the evildoers, how is it possible that the wicked will be no more, that they will no longer be evil? Rather, pray for God to have mercy on them, that they should repent. If they do so, the wicked will be no more, because they will have repented, changed and become better people.
Rabbi Meir saw that Berurya was correct and he prayed for God to have mercy on them, and they did indeed repent.
For those struggling with how to spiritually address the President’s health status, I urge you to listen to Berurya. Our tradition teaches us that the Gates of Repentance are still open. They did not close completely on Yom Kippur. They don’t close until Hoshanah Rabbah which is next Friday. Sometimes, challenging situations have the potential to change people, making them better, wiser, more compassionate. I know some will say that I am being a dreamer, but I’d rather dream than pray for someone’s demise. And so I offer these words as a suggestion for those of you struggling right now:
May the one who blessed our ancestors bring healing to President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump. May God be filled with compassion and restore their health. May God swiftly send them a renewal of body and a transformation of spirit. And may they be enlightened because of this challenging experience. May their eyes, hearts and souls be opened in new and powerful ways to the dangers of this illness and the havoc it is wreaking across our land. May God’s compassion ignite compassion within them, compassion for all Americans who are struggling. May their recovery give them the opportunity to lift our country up and, in doing so, bring some much-needed healing to the United States of America.