Quarantine Diaries: Lessons from a Global Crisis
There are many comic interludes posted online, and humor is an effective outlet in these anxious times. One good post was: “G-d could we please uninstall 2020 and reinstall it again, it has a virus?” Not only can we not reinstall 2020, but if we believe that the Almighty has a hand in running the world, we trust that there is a reason why this is happening. We are not prophets, so we can’t possibly comprehend the reason, but we can attempt to look at what lessons we are meant to learn from the global upheaval. I would like to share some thoughts about how we can respond to the challenges. In a letter from March 13 published in the Jewish newspapers (Hamodia) Rabbi Chaim Kaniefsky, the leading Sage of the generation, tells us that the three things we need to work on as a response to the Coronavirus. He says we need to work on humility, on giving in to the needs of others, and on not speaking negatively about other people. I would like to share some thoughts about why these might be the personal qualities we are meant to focus on.
The first lesson of humility is to internalize the fact that we are not in control. With the many technological miracles occurring at the beginning of the 21st century; AI, mapping of the genome, genetic engineering, quantum computers, we cannot control a microscopic virus. We are all cowering in our homes, health care workers are the soldiers on the front lines, and tens of thousands of people are dying across the globe. Man is not the measure of all, and our tradition tells us that even though we think that our efforts are what direct the events of the world, every so often we are taught in a very dramatic manner that this is not the case. The Torah warns us not to think ‘my strength and the work of my hands produced this wealth.’ (Deuteronomy 8:17) We are meant to learn a lesson in humility; that man is not the ultimate source of power, but that there is a superior authority beyond us. The Almighty is teaching us to temper our pride and sense of empowerment.
The second lesson we need to learn is that we are all connected, and as such we are all responsible for each other. Beyond the teaching of “Love your neighbor as yourself,” the Talmud goes even further and tells us “All Jews are interconnected with each other”. Another possible reading is “all Jews are guarantors for each other.” (Babylonian Talmud Shavuot 39a) And we are also accountable for the whole world. Our Sages tell us that G-d loves all human beings, then we too must love them and look out for them as well. (Ethics of the Fathers 3:14)
We are being challenged to live out this teaching in a very extreme way. We are being asked to shut down our lives, isolate ourselves in our homes, and seclude ourselves with only our families, or for many even alone, in order to save others’ lives. We are being asked to put our personal freedoms and desires aside for the sake of others. Yes, if we socialize there is a danger to ourselves, however, we understand that the real danger is to older people and the immuno compromised. And indeed, some people across the world are pushing back, asking ‘what about the economy?’ The economy is a concern, but here in Israel there is a clear message: Jewish values call on us to isolate otherwise the elderly will be in grave danger. The lives of all people our society comes first.
As this crisis begins to abate, we will have learned that all of mankind is required to be responsible for one other, because we can no longer say that a virus on the other side of the world is not my problem. However, we also need to remember that as Jews we have a delicate balance of having a global consciousness and caring, all the while not forgetting that at the same time we need to keep our distinctly Jewish values. An example of this is the absolute value of human life which cannot be compromised. Upholding our values sometimes calls for us to maintain boundaries and remain distinct from the rest of world. Rabbi Kanievsky says that we should apply the lesson of putting others first in our homes as well. Instead of getting in an argument with a family member, we should defer to them and nullify our own desires.
The final teaching we must contemplate is why we are being isolated from our friends, our grandparents, our community, and our synagogue. We find social distancing in the Torah under the laws of the metzorah, usually referred to as the leper. If a person contracted tzarat they were sent out of the camp for a minimum of one-week. Our Sages explain that one is struck with this disease due to a spiritual cause, speaking negatively of others, or loshon hara. (BT Arachin 16a) This happened in the Torah to Miriam when she criticized the actions of her brother Moshe. The lesson seems clear; if we speak ill of someone when we are socializing, if we gossip with our friends about others, then we no longer deserve to have the privilege of those social bonds because we are misusing them. And isolation can teach us to reflect on how to have positive and constructive social interactions instead of negative and destructive ones.
Recently people have asked me, I think Mashiach is coming? The question is not, will this catastrophe lead to a silver bullet to save us? Rather the question is this: will this tragedy lead us to change and become better people. Will we use it to think about our lives from a new perspective, with one that helps us to internalize that we are not in control and that we need to make room in our lives to let the Almighty in? One that teaches us to put others’ needs before our own, even if it causes us inconvenience or discomfort. And one that brings about peace and harmony with others and avoids gossip, hurt, and strife. Let’s get to work! And perhaps a different, more loving, accepting, supportive, socially conscientious, and G-d conscious world can emerge from this devastating tragedy.