Corona, the virus that can topple an empire

Like you, I first heard of “novel coronavirus” towards the end of last year. We were then sidetracked by our own medical journey through February, and paid scant attention to what seemed to be mildly disturbing news out of China.

Fast forward to this week, and our family is in voluntary self-quarantine, thanks a to quick jaunt abroad for a simcha.

I had never imagined I might live through a global pandemic. Smallpox is extinct and polio mostly unheard of. We’re winning the war against malaria, have effective vaccination against measles and have decidedly reduced the mortality rate of AIDS. We had always been told that the Plague had been relegated to the history books.

If anything, they told us, humanity would have to worry about a giant flood, the result of rising sea levels. We had microbes under control; it would be emissions that we would need to tackle. Last year, Greta Thunberg railed that “Our house is on fire” and Al Gore warned that Climate Change would be humanity’s greatest challenge.

Seems nobody saw COVID-19 coming. Corona, the virus that gets its name from the way it resembles a crown. The virus that is reminiscent of the story of the downfall of Titus, emperor of Rome. The virus that threatens to topple an empire.

Rome had built a massive empire, almost too vast to control. In addition to becoming the world superpower, Rome was clearly the tech giant of its time. The Romans had innovated citywide sanitation systems, had revolutionised structural engineering and architecture, and had pioneered urban water supply. General Titus rode the crest of Rome’s wave as he stormed into Jerusalem, overpowered the fortified city and destroyed our Temple.

Titus, the Talmud relates, brazenly entered the Holy of Holies, pausing just long enough to madly stab at the Paroches-curtain that hung in front of the inner sanctuary. Miraculously, it began to bleed, which prompted Titus to gloat that he had “killed the Jewish G-d”. After he had looted the Temple and headed home, a massive storm threatened to sink his ship in  the Mediterranean, . Titus was indignant, “The Jewish G-d only knows to kill using water. He drowned Pharaoh and his armies, as he did Sisera and his soldiers. Evidently, He intends to do the same to me. If He were truly Almighty, He would battle me on land”.

A heavenly voice responded, “Wicked one, descendant of wicked ones, I will show you how the tiniest of my creatures can destroy you!”

The tempest abated and Titus returned to Rome. Once he was safely back on land, a tiny gnat flew up his nostril, and began to slowly and painfully bore into his brain, eventually killing the famous conqueror.

Ancient Rome had ruled all the way to the Caspian Sea. Our empire of modernity reaches the edge of interstellar Space. Rome had linked Alexandria and Carthage with flagstone roads and aqueducts. We have linked Beijing, Basel and Baton Rouge with fibre optics. “Rome”, said Titus Livius, eventually became “overwhelmed by its own greatness”. We might say the same of the Modern Empire, secure in its faith in Wall Street, the U.N. and Google.

We have our protesters: Greenpeace, Leonardo di Caprio and co. who preach about an impending Great Flood- G-d’s choice method of destroying humanity, remember?

Titus might argue that our society has mimicked his assassination attempt on G-d. At the very least, we’ve expelled Him from school, government and the judiciary.  If He is actually out there, Titus would reaffirm the scientific assertion that rising sea-levels are the only real weapon He has in His apocalyptic arsenal. And that’s fine, because we have the Kyoto Protocol lifeboat.

A minuscule gnat took down the mighty Titus. Now, microscopic microbes threaten to dissolve our new-age economic, travel and social structures.

Human achievement, especially in the Moore’s Law age of the 21st Century, has been spectacular. We may have started to believe in our own prowess and achievements. It seems He is nudging us to remember where it all comes from and who is truly in control.

Our Sages spoke of a collapse of man-made systems before Moshiach would come. Let’s hope that the current chaos simply means that we’ve arrived.

About the Author
Rabbi Shishler together with his wife, Naomi and their eight children, runs Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton, South Africa. Rabbi Shishler is a popular teacher who regularly lectures around the globe. he hosts a weekly radio show in South Africa and is the rabbi of Facebook's largest Ask the Rabbi group.
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