The coronavirus crisis reminds us that we are small, that our knowledge is limited, and that we are not the masters of this world.
By Yishai Fleisher, JNS
My wife’s father’s cousin, Larry, a man I knew and who hosted one of our Sheva Brachot (post-wedding ceremony), died this past Friday.
A music teacher all his life, Larry succumbed to COVID-19 at the age of 77 and was buried near his home in New Jersey, eulogized at a funeral attended virtually by dozens of people, but laid to rest only by his sons and grandchildren, due to restrictions imposed in an effort to reduce infection risk. His loving wife of 55 years bravely watched and bid him farewell from her own quarantine room, alternately sobbing, saying her goodbyes, and wishing all the viewers the best of health in this difficult time.
This disease is very real and it hits home. World economies are collapsing. Planes are grounded. Stores are closed. Children are at home. The Israel we know and love is shut down. Tourism is dead. A million Israelis are out of work. The Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem is empty and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron is without visitors. And there are hundreds of sick people, sadly, some have died. There is a general sense of uncertainty and frustration.
Hubris to Humility
The past 100 years of progress led us to believe that humanity had dominated nature and that science could tackle most challenges. Recently, Israeli TV anchor Dana Weiss insinuated that instead of a Temple in Jerusalem, the Weizmann Institute of Science is the real Third Temple. For her and her ilk, science and progress are the highest power.
But the coronavirus pandemic has challenged this attitude. We can see clearly that God can topple our great cities and civilizations with a tiny, fat-encrusted virus. This is not to say that science and progress are meaningless—not at all—but they are not all-powerful.
The word that comes to mind is humility. The coronavirus crisis has reminded us that we are small, that our knowledge is limited, and that we are not the masters of this world.
Zoom in, Zoom out
Another aspect of humility is our newfound understanding that we really need one another, and not just transactionally. We desperately need companionship and camaraderie, family and friendship to feel healthy and whole.
The advent of the Zoom phenomenon in the age of coronavirus is a reflection of the deep human need to stay connected. Yoga on Zoom, Judaism classes on Zoom, talking with the grandparents on Zoom, and even drinks with pals on Zoom; Zoom is awesome.
But by the end of last week, I felt Zoomed-out. Over-Zoomed. Just as the world is in some kind of forced hibernation, I too yearned to hibernate, to look inward, to contemplate.
Indeed, the past decade has been marked by a maddening pace of progress and technological advancement. We barely even notice how quickly the news moves, how rapidly information travels, and how we ourselves jump from thing to thing.
But with the power to move fast, we have also lost certain abilities—it is well documented that the faculties of concentration and meditation have been degraded.
Therefore, the Coronavirus Slowdown contains a dichotomy. On the one hand, the power of social media and livestreaming is more valuable than ever. If we were hooked on our smartphones before, now they’re our life support. But on the other hand, the slowdown brings with it an opportunity for inner quiet, introspection, meditation—a kind of Shabbat.
Indeed, the whole world is in a Shabbat-like state. Nature is getting a break from humanity’s vociferous demands, and humanity is decelerating. And with the many sick and dead, we have nothing to do but pray.
A set of biblical images remind me of today’s crisis:
Noah and his ark constituted an act of extreme social distancing. Everyone else was losing the battle with the flood-plague, and yet he was spared. But was he confident the whole time? Probably not. Sitting atop an endless sea covering a destroyed world, Noah must have asked himself: Am I worthy to survive?
One can imagine that the world today is experiencing a kind of flood, and that we are all being asked to enter our personal arks and pray for survival.
Gruesome Images from the Belly of the Whale
The Prophet Jonah was also on a boat. When he was running from God’s command to prophesy to Nineveh, he boarded a ship sailing away from the Land of Israel. Jonah went down to the lower deck and fell asleep, while outside a storm threatened to destroy the ship. The ship’s captain woke Jonah and demanded: “How can you be sleeping so soundly! Get up and call upon your God! Perhaps God will be kind to us and we will not perish!”
But Jonah did not get the message and needed to get thrown off the ship and into the belly of a whale for a wake-up call. Today, there are gruesome images from the belly of the whale—overextended hospitals, trucks carrying bodies in Italy.
Finally, and poignantly for this season, is the story of the Exodus. There, the Jews were commanded to smear their doorposts with blood and then shelter in place so that God would pass over them while he struck at the Egyptian firstborn.
Yet in all three cases, a better world emerged after the crisis. Noah’s family gave birth to a new world. Nineveh repented. And the Jews were finally able to leave Egypt in freedom.
So, too, the coronavirus is a plague and a storm, and we are suffering, but a better world can yet emerge when it is all over.
L’chaim to Rebirth
My mother told me that during the Yom Kippur War, all city lights were shut off or covered; there was a blackout, and no one roamed the streets. But when it was all over, when windows were un-boarded, when headlights were uncovered and life began to return to the cities, she and her friends walked the streets and felt as though they were drunk! Drunk on light, on air and on freedom.
So too shall we feel after the coronavirus pandemic. And like the people and animals on Noah’s Ark, we will learn that just as the world goes to sleep, it wakes up again. The Start-Up Nation will come out of hibernation.
And when we do come out of this, we will mourn the loved ones who were lost and we will celebrate the birthdays and life-cycle events that we missed. We will appreciate the simple things in life. And maybe we will merit to help give rebirth to a better world. We will toast l’chaim to one another—and will never look at a Corona beer in the same way again.
Yishai Fleisher is the international spokesman of the Jewish community of Hebron and an Israeli broadcaster. This article is dedicated to the memory of Larry Bernath.
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