There is a famous joke about an optimist who falls off the top of the Empire State Building. On the way down, people watching out the windows hear him say, “So far, so good! So far so good!” We’ll get back to this joke in a bit.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a new type of virus appeared in West Africa: Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Some fifteen years later, the same region originated another menace: Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever (EHF), or simply Ebola. It would be very tempting to blame poor living conditions and malnutrition in West Africa as the causes that such devastating outbreaks occurred specifically there. It would also be very wrong.
Even if we find cures for AIDS and for Ebola, tomorrow’s plague is right around the corner, and it is likely to be even worse than the current horror we are facing. Because if you take an isolated cataclysm, any kind of cataclysm, and detach it from the big picture, you deprive yourself of the chance to remedy it, or the (sure to come) future outbreak of some other tragedy.
Moreover, we tend to think that health problems are a separate matter from social problems, which are in turn separate from economic problems. They are not; they are part of the human sphere, where we create our thrills and ills, and where we can build a life of misery or bliss, all thanks to our ability to choose between awareness, or lack thereof.
Today’s most innovative and fascinating studies in science have to do with networks and communication—human social networks, cosmic networks, communication networks among bacteria, and the list goes on and on. More and more, we are discovering that we are so bound up together that every element in reality affects every other element of it as if we’re all welded together by metal rods. And the fact that we are unaware of it doesn’t give us any allowances.
And instead of acknowledging it and adjusting our lives to reality, we’re behaving like that optimist in the joke I quoted at the start of the post. But oblivion and ignorance won’t change things for the better.
The truth is simple: All of reality is a mesh of forces that continuously reciprocate and balance themselves out, creating a cosmic homeostasis. When we sit by the beach enjoying Nature’s harmony and calm, or when we’re out in the woods watching nature’s beauty, we admire it. The problem is that we forget that we are part of it! The human species isn’t exogenous to nature. It is part of it! Not only that, we are the top of the pyramid. No other creature can choose whether to preserve and cultivate our world, or destroy it, and ourselves along with it. Only we can do it.
But nature is a perfectly balanced mechanism. If you remove any part of it, even ones that seem redundant or harmful, you throw the system out of balance and “force” nature to rebalance itself more adamantly. When such rebalances occur, they manifest in out-of-the-norm phenomena, such as extreme weather events, earthquakes, diseases, or acute social crises, depending on the level and nature of the imbalance.
Because humans are at the top of the pyramid, everything we do projects on the entire structure of reality. When we exploit elements of reality—minerals, plants, animals, or our fellow men and women—and use them to exhaustion, we throw the system off balance. The recompense is sure to come. And the more we throw the system off balance, the more forcefully nature will have to restore it.
We have been saying “so far so good” for too long now. Since the start of the 20th century, humanity has become connected enough to be regarded as a single system, a single organism. In fact, in my perception as a Kabbalist and a scientist, the root cause of both WWI and WWII was nature’s attempt to rebalance itself after centuries of human exploitation of each other and of nature. Since WWII, the situation has only worsened.
And so we see that Ebola, the most recent scare nature has inflicted upon us, is unlikely to be cured unless we cure its causes: our own exploitation of nature and of each other. Even if we do find a cure, it won’t be long before another, worse outbreak, comes along. Because Ebola isn’t the disease; it’s a symptom of our malfunctioning society!
This, and other plagues, are appearing in West Africa not because of its poor living conditions, although these wrongs should certainly be mended. It is simply that we treat West Africa as an outcast, as though the whole region doesn’t belong to the human family. But since humanity is a single system, whose parts are all connected, leave a part of it unattended and it soon becomes infested and infects the whole body.
When you have a sore in your toe, you take care of it because otherwise the infection might spread throughout the body. The same principle applies to every part of this planet where humans are mistreated and malnourished.
And the last, but certainly not least point I want to make in this post is this: So far, we, Jews, haven’t been accused of engineering or spreading the Ebola virus. But I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if we were. In fact, I predict that we will. We haven’t engineered it or spread it, that’s for sure. But it is true that we are responsible, just as anti-Semites claim, for the misfortunes and afflictions the world over. It is written (Masechet Yevamot, 63a), “No calamity comes to the world but for Israel.”
As it was true so many centuries ago, it is true now. The Jews’ responsibility toward the world is not to cure Ebola, AIDS, or feed the poor and starving. It is to serve as a role model of harmony through camaraderie and friendship, through brotherly love. We have given the world the tenet, “love your neighbor as yourself,” and we must implement it, so that everyone else can see that it’s possible, good, and is the only alternative to today’s exploitive and destructive society.
The pause in the fighting in Gaza gives all Jews throughout the world a window of opportunity to think less of protecting ourselves, and more about strengthening our connections. Being the part in the system of humanity that draws the most attention, our change of focus toward social cohesion and mutual sympathy will spread ripples of positivity throughout the system. These will restore balance throughout the human society and the whole of nature faster than we can ever imagine. But we have to make the first move, and the sooner the better.