Monday, September 28, 2020 -
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Coronavirus: Who is in control?

Am I the only one thinking of the Holocaust? Darkness descended: Suddenly. Dangerously. Transforming reality, totally. Impossible to get a grip on because never seen before.

To compare the coronavirus and the Holocaust is a false comparison, of course. The coronavirus is not a murderer’s weapon. But mentally? Maybe I’m the only person, but mentally my world is totally transformed and I think of the Holocaust.

I also think of a conversation that one of our sons had in Israel with a secular friend, who observed: “We are so much better prepared than 100 years ago to handle this kind of outbreak.”

My son observed (apparently to himself, not to his friend): “Here we are, every single person on the planet, perhaps for the first time in all of our lives, is confronted with the stark reality that we are not in control, and this person thinks we are ‘prepared!’”

We are not in control.

It is a sobering lesson so contrary to the prevailing ethos nurtured moment by moment by technology, which has convinced humanity that it can do anything and solve anything in the nanosecond it takes to tap an icon on a screen. That ethos, by the way, affects not just secular people, but a slew of religious people, too.

So if we are not in control, yes, we should try to regain control by the best public health measures we can devise. But at the very best they will take a long time to work, not to mention that in many places they may be too late or may not be feasible at all, depending on the continent and the political leadership. The bottom line is, if we are not in control, then what?

Wondering why “they” can’t just take care of this will not help. If ever there were evidence that there is no “they” out there — no automatic solution to every human need out there — is a very salutary realization.

Anger at the Chinese leaders who did not fight the spread of the virus when they first learned of it will not help. That reckoning will have to wait.

Resentment at those who unnecessarily stocked up on 10 tubes of Neosporin, leaving the shelves empty and others unsafe, will not help. The holes in emergency measures will need to focus on other necessities going forward.

But there is a lot that will help.

In this terrible time, there are certain opportunities, not preferred to begin with, but nonetheless opportunities.

One is to focus on what we do have:

1. Food. Perhaps not in all its variety, perhaps not in a restaurant setting, perhaps not served by someone else. But we have the essence of life: food.

2. Prayer — the power to make a difference. Not with minyan, not in the synagogue, not with friends and family next to me, not with a sense of community, not with a word of inspiration from a rabbi. But the power to pray is primarily vertical, not horizontal. That we do have — prayer’s essence, even alone in our own homes.

3. Simchas. One of our sons is scheduled to have a bris for a newborn son one day before this newspaper is scheduled to be published.

There will be, under current law in Israel, only 10 people there. If you figure in the newborn, the mohel, the sandak, the two parents, you have five people right there. Which means only five additional guests. Who will not include the baby’s grandparents in Denver, due to the flight and quarantine restrictions. Still, we feel a great simcha. How could it be otherwise? The holiness is unchanged. If anything, the holiness is increased, given the merit of a bris in a time of community danger.

4. Roots. With so much shut down, we have the opportunity to feel satisfaction in becoming more inner-directed, in reaching into the roots of who we really are. Example: increased opportunities for Torah study online. Or even, Torah study alone in our own homes.

Either way, in our homes we can enhance our focus, since a lot of places we used to go are closed and a lot of distractions are gone. One might take all this additional time to worry, but as my late Dad used to say: “Worrying is like being in a rocking chair. There’s a lot of movement, but you don’t get very far.”

And so, I dig into talmudic tractate Shabbat. Today’s folio page (10a) offers:

• the importance of not treating children differently (Jacob did, which led to the descent of the Israelites into slavery in Egypt);

• the pointed language that the sages used in their disagreements;

• the critical importance of having a good breakfast;

• the restriction on the use of the word Shalom, as it is a name of G-d that should not be uttered in an inappropriate place;

• the need for me to inform my friend if I give him or her a gift, for an anonymous gift cannot enhance a friendship;

• the need for Moses to inform the Jewish people of “a precious gift in My treasure house, called the Sabbath.”

The coronavirus brought another sobering and surprising lesson my way. It has taught me the mentality of the racist. More than racism has struck me as morally wrong, it has struck me as nonsensical. I never understood it, or at least I could never put myself in a racist’s shoes before the outbreak of the coronavirus.

A racist sees a category of person he has stigmatized. A racist recoils, or is fearful, or wary, or just plain hostile. I can now identify with this, in a non-discriminatory way. I see somebody. Given the invisibility yet potential pervasiveness and proven harm of the coronavirus, I am wary. Does this somebody have the virus? Maybe he has it, but doesn’t know? Could this somebody harm me?

Could I harm others?

These disturbing questions are entirely non-discriminatory, for it is not a person of a different race or nationality who makes me wary. It is everyone.

This may be an overreaction, maybe unwarranted. But if so, it is all the more a reflection of the feelings of a racist, who has no basis for his bias. There is no basis for racial wariness, fear or hostility.

Still more: Some bigots, whatever the precise percentage, know down deep that their hostility is absolutely ridiculous. I too know that the chances that somebody I interact with has the coronavirus are virtually nil. But I still recoil, if not in any active, physical or social sense, then mentally.

Perhaps it is the lack of being in control during various plagues throughout history that has boosted bigotry, that has led to violence against minorities. If the current lack of control should teach us anything, it is this: Yes, there is a race. It is called the human race. It is under threat equally. We should do all we can to stand in solidarity with it, to take whatever measures we can to defeat it.

Copyright © 2020 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor |

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