Take it seriously, but handle it sanely

Coronavirus represents its own different kind of threat because we do not yet know where it is going. Unlike flu, we do not yet know for sure what we are dealing with because, who eats bats?

Rabbi Prof. Dov Fischer

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צילום: PR

1. Why Take It Seriously

I face a dilemma. I do not believe a thing coming from the mainstream American news media. They have lied to me so often, and particularly these past three years, that I do not watch them, do not hear them, do not bother with them.  It does seems that Israel’s newscasts, despite their own left-leaning tilts, do a better job of reporting on news in Europe, Asia, and Africa. And of course the Mideast.

Israel’s reaction to the coronavirus seems to place it three weeks ahead of America. If so, Americans also may find arrests and fines awaiting them in April if they step outdoors for non-essential purposes.

In America, the Left blames Trump  for any possible coronavirus reaction that can be criticized. In Israel, the Left blames Bibi.  But if we watch what has happened elsewhere, we see that both Israel and America are in good hands. Neither country has become an Italy or Spain, while both have wrestled with balancing prudence, common sense, and freedom.

Younger people are precisely the sweet and kind sorts who unknowingly can transmit death to those in the higher-risk categories. My people do not eat bats, snakes, and dogs, and we do not have an established tolerance to China viruses.
In Israel, of course, the country now is in “seger,” lock-down of sorts. Many American governors now are doing the same in states like New York, California, Illinois, and Florida.

I am aware that common flu kills 30,000-60,000 Americans every year, and that other diseases — hepatitis B, pneumonia, malaria, HIV/AIDS, and others — likewise have proven far more deadly than coronavirus so far. Yet coronavirus represents its own different kind of threat because we do not yet know where it is going. 

My law students at the two law schools where I teach are in a safer age cohort, but my congregation includes several beloved families who are over age 60 and 65 and beyond. Some live very dynamically but with chronic health conditions that place them in the higher-risk categories. Some take immunosuppressing medications to control those conditions and assure them longevity. So they end up with a trifecta of concerns. 

Meanwhile, although the death rate from this disease among people under 60 is minuscule, those younger people are precisely the sweet and kind sorts who unknowingly can transmit death to those in the higher-risk categories. So, as a rabbi responsible for my congregation, I cannot regard this illness as an “overblown exaggeration.”  My people do not eat bats, snakes, and dogs, and we do not have an established tolerance to China viruses.

People under 60 and without high-risk health conditions know pretty quickly when they have the flu, but do not know for two weeks when they are carrying coronavirus. This difference is critical.  When someone has the flu, within two or three days they are sneezing, coughing, red-eyed, and a mess. You know to stay away from them, or you know you also are going to be so sick in two days.  Moreover, if you are among the sensible half of the population, you even can pursue partial precaution by getting a flu shot, even a multi-spectrum one for people more at risk. That immunization does not cancel every flu bug, but it helps a bunch and even mitigates flu’s worst symptoms for those stricken anyway.

Unlike flu, we do not yet know for sure what we are dealing with because, who eats bats? The flu season often ends in the warmer months, but Australia now is in summer because everything there is upside-down, and that also have it.  Not only do we not fully know what we are dealing with here, but we also cannot be sure whether next winter the thing will mutate into a variant.  So it is a real concern. Look dispassionately and objectively at what has befallen Italy and Spain to grasp what could be. Yes, it may all pass and join a litany of diseases like H1N1, Swine Flu, MERS, and SARS that caused concern and killed but did not disrupt the world economy. Or it could turn into something more concerning like the 1918 Spanish flu. We just do not yet know.

Even if the ultimate number of people stricken cannot be avoided, there is an enormous premium on slowing down the rate, the tempo of the spread so that not everyone gets critical at once. By reducing the speed of the spread, the public’s health system may avoid becoming over-taxed. We have a finite number of oxygen-generating equipment — ventilators, external oxygen machines —  a finite number of hospital beds, of intensive-care beds, a finite number of health care workers.  If all whom the coronavirus will strike get sick during the same time frame, hospital administrators and medical personnel will have to make life-and-death choices as to who gets the ventilator and who is selected to die.

That concern is at the core of Israel’s response, and America slowly is moving in that direction, even as it ramps up production of ventilators and masks by encouraging manufacturers to re-tool factories and grants waivers to mask-manufacturers promising them certain exemptions from litigation.

2. Dealing With It

Hoarding is so foolish and socially evil, causing artificial disruptions to an ample supply chain. Both Israel and America are lands of plenty. Shelves are bare because supermarkets, proceeding as they do every other day, do not maintain in back-storage rooms a million rolls of toilet paper, a million hand sanitizers, and a million cartons of milk. If they did, in normal times, the milk would spoil, and the toilet paper and sanitizers would crowd out the food items that normal consumers come to buy.

So the store managers, who have every motivation to stock as much as people can buy, know from years of experience exactly how much supply to have on hand based on buyers’ normal patterns. Panic hoarding disrupts the equation. At some point, those who have hoarded toilet paper are going to figure out that: (i) they have no more room at home to store any more of it; (ii) they have no room for food in their refrigerators because the cold shelves, vegetable bins, and cheese racks are jammed with toilet paper; and (iii) if they having nothing to eat, then they really are not going to need it.

For me as an Orthodox Jew, there is another dimension to dealing with all of this.
For me as an Orthodox Jew, there is another dimension to dealing with all of this. All my life, I have lived a 25-hour period every week, from Friday sunset to Saturday nightfall, observing the Holy Sabbath (Shabbat) in the manner of our tradition. For twenty-five hours, we do not activate electricity or electronics, do not drive a car, do not transact business, do not write, do not use phones or computers.  Outsiders hear of an Orthodox Jewish Sabbath and ask compassionately: “You poor person, what do you do all day? Sit in the dark?”

No. When you cannot watch television or email or text and tweet your thumbs off, and cannot do clothes washes or write checks to pay bills, you instead slow down and take a breath for a day. You eat a slower, longer multi-course meal that you prepared before Shabbat, with no rush, no worries.  You talk with your spouse, your kids, and you share a two-hour meal. You sing soulful songs at the table. The kids update you on their week at school, and you them on your week at work. You discuss ideas and dreams for the future. 

Afterwards, you read. One person reads a novel. Another reads a history book. Many of us read the weekly Torah portion with commentaries by Rabbi Rashi of France, Rabbis Ramban and Ibn Ezra of Spain, Rabbi Sforno of Italy, perhaps something more contemporary like Rabbi Hirsch of Germany, Rabbi Chofetz Chaim of Rusia, or Rabbi Soloveitchik of Boston and New York.  The kids play board games: “Apples to Apples,” “Settlers of Catan,” chess, Scrabble, Taboo! — or my favorite, 221B Baker Street.

When I was a little boy growing up in a Modern Orthodox home, I harbored mixed feelings about Shabbat because my non-Jewish friends and my non-observant Jewish friends would run off to the movies on Saturday afternoon;I could not go.  The years have passed. If someone today were to ask me whether I wish I could go to the movies on Shabbat, I would look at them as though they were crazy. Indeed, they would be ashamed to ask.

It is going to be challenging for many to get used to living more indoors, slowing down the pace a bit, attending class and lectures via Zoom instead of in-person, watching streamed movies at home instead of traveling the world. This will be different and at times isolating. And it may go on for a year, not just three weeks.

But some may look back a year from now and concede that it was a little bit nice to experience a nuclear family at home. In Israel, not only were shuls closed this weekend, but this Shabbat was the first time in the 71-year history of the country that all public transportation was closed down, all sports events, all theaters, restaurants, beaches, and shopping malls closed.

Yes, this will drive some people — the Avigdor Liberman crowd — nuts. But maybe some others will appreciate, if properly focused, what they have been missing. If only Israel would move to a five-day work week like much of the civilized West, freeing up half of Sunday for soccer and the beach, Shabbat really would grab so many more.

This also is a time for nations to attain humility, realizing that, in a world where an infinitesimally minuscule microbe can drive an entire planet into pandemonium, humans do not and cannot ever control everything. Despite the Climate Change paranoids, we are incapable of destroying G-d’s planet because we are not omnipotent. And we also should think about whether anyone in our orbit is so isolated and shut in that they need a phone call or help in having food delivered to their door. That omnipotent we can be.