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Plague and Prejudice

 

Blog #1:

Though I think I have said this before, I am going to say it again. I envy Rabbi Benjamin Blech. What is it about R. Blech that I envy? I envy his amazing ability to weave together concepts and ideas using both biblical and contemporary sources to provide insight and inspiration. A great example of this is his most recent article that he sent me titled “Plague and Prejudice.”

Esther is a dear friend who I truly admire for her heroic courage during these past months of global pandemic. Without fear for personal safety she has, as an emergency room physician, tended to the sick, the infected and the dying. She shared with me an observation that in the past weeks assumed totally new significance – an astonishing linkage between two seemingly unconnected historic events.

Esther described to me how death by coronavirus is a horror beyond description. It is painful and protracted, a drawn-out process of gasping for life-giving breath. She told me how sad it was that for many their last words were a plea to which she was incapable of responding. “Help,” their final request on earth begged, “I can’t breathe.”

This very refrain of coronavirus victims found its sequel in the tragic death of George Floyd. He too pleaded for air. His last words: “Help, I can’t breathe.” This time the cause of death was racism rather than contagion.

There is no denying that the two foremost threats to present day survival are plague and prejudice. Both have the potential to destroy civilization as we know it. And both, if not overcome, will lead to similar result – a cry for the breath which from the time of creation grants us life.

It is fascinating that the English language preserves a profound biblical idea. When a person dies, we say that he expires. The word comes from the Latin ex, which means out, and spiritus, spirit, soul, breath. Death is the moment that undoes what is described in the book of Genesis: “And the L-RD G-d formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being”. (Genesis 2:7)

Breath is what gives us life. It is what makes us human – and at the same time grants us a portion of the essence of the Almighty. When it departs from us, we die, because there is no longer any point in our being alive having lost the spark of God within us.

To prevent us from “expiring” there is only one alternative. We need to be “inspired”, to reanimate ourselves with the spiritual insights of the soul.

I do not dare to suggest, as G-d warned Job who sought to understand His ways, that we might comprehend or justify our present global pandemic. Yet I do know that from this tragedy have already come many vital lessons which can profoundly “in-spire” us.

We need to acknowledge that the divinely ordained “timeout” to our frantic lifestyles - the pre-pandemic norms which threatened our environment, our health, and our families - may have taught us a far wiser perspective. Perhaps there is more truth than he realized in the words a very wealthy executive shared with me when he said “this is the first time in twenty-five years that I have eaten dinner together every night with my wife and kids as a family, that I have had the time to catch my breath, to read, to think and to talk with my loved ones.” Perhaps we can come to realize how great a blessing it is to be able to stop and catch our breath - before we become incapable of breathing.

So too, in the aftermath of the racist murder of George Floyd from whom was cruelly taken the divine gift of breath, we need to be inspired to relearn the simple truth that we are all created in the image of G-d. 

The reason G-d created the entire world with the creation of a single human being, the Talmud teaches, is to remind us that he who destroys one person is as if he destroys an entire world. 

The tragedy of George Floyd’s death needs to be followed by more than protest. If it is to have historic meaning and purpose it should spur us to generate a healing breath of fresh air – a breath of divine spirit which reminds us of our shared uniqueness as children of God.

Blog #2:

Rabbi Ken Spiro is a historian, author, international lecturer, and Israeli tour guide. I highly suggest reading his books. In the following article “Made in the Image of G-d,” he shares his reflections on what we can learn from the troubling events of the past months and weeks.

A silver lining of the Covid-19 pandemic is how the world suddenly united to battle the microscopic enemy that threatened the whole world. The unseen virus pushed the world into an awareness of our shared vulnerability and the need to work together for a common good. The enemy did not recognize borders and didn’t care about race or creed. It was the human race versus Covid-19.

The death of George Floyd changed all that. Literally overnight difference was sowing division and disunity, especially in America, where the country was ripping itself apart, more divided than it has been for half century.

Science tells us that all human beings are 99.9% genetically identical. Between you and me and everyone else on the planet, there is .01% physiological difference. Anthropology teaches us that all homo sapiens originated in the same place (Africa) and migrated over millennia to all corners of the planet. The racial differences we see today – Caucasoid (white), Negroid (Black), Mongoloid (Oriental) etc. – are a by-product of a long period of separation and adaptation to different geographic areas and climates. Bottom line, superficial difference in the color of our skin, hair and eyes, we really are all part of one giant extended family and are remarkably similar to one another.

The origins of this understanding of common ancestry go way back before modern science. 3,700 years ago, in the Middle East, a man named Abraham brought a radical concept into the world – the belief in Monotheism – that there is one infinite Creator of the universe Who is the Father of all humanity. There is a fundamental equality amongst all of us because we are all created in the image of G-d.

Abraham’s mission was not only to teach the world about one G-d but to also teach the world about one common destiny – a world united by universal, G-d-given values and principles. That, in a nutshell, is the Jewish, messianic vision for humanity.

It took thousands of years, but this concept of ethical monotheism transformed the vision and values of the world and served as an ideological foundation for the political evolution of much of modern civilization as clearly stated in 1776 in the Declaration of Independence of the United States:

“WE hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

In practice it did not work out exactly as preached. The majority of the Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, were slave owners, and its practical implementation has proven to be a long, hard, uphill struggle, but this statement enshrined the concept of equality as the fundamental principle of liberal democracy.

The Jewish people also have not always found it easy to practice what they preached. Fractiousness and divisiveness have plagued the Jewish people for millennia. (We all know the joke about a Jew stranded on a desert island who builds two synagogues – one he prays in and one he refuses to enter.) We have spent way too much time focusing on what divides us and not enough on what unites us.                                        We need to remember that Jew-haters make no such distinctions.

Perhaps the recent events that have so shaken up our world should serve as a warning and wake-up call, that we need to make a paradigm shift in how we look at ourselves and others. Rather than focus on difference which only leads to divisiveness, we need to focus on how much we all have in common.

It would do us well to remember the wise words of Rabbi Akiva; they are as relevant today as when they were first written almost 2,000 years ago:

“Beloved is man for he was created in the image [of G-d]. Especially beloved is he for it was made known to him that he had been created in the image [of G-d], as it is said: “for in the image of G-d He made man” (Genesis 9:6). 

Beloved are Israel in that they were called G-d’s children… as it is said: “you are children of the L-rd your G-d” (Deuteronomy 14:1). 

Beloved are Israel in that a precious vessel was given to them [the Torah]. Especially beloved are they for it was made known to them that they were given a precious vessel through which the world was created, as it is said: “for I give you good instruction; forsake not my Torah” (Proverbs 4:2) Ethics of the Fathers, 3:1.