“Good works”: Enhanced by a pandemic?

The title yearns for sunlight in the deepest of darkness, as perhaps we somehow perceive the end of the tunnel in the distance.  At bottom, we long for a pentimento of sorts — with a quality of human decency lurking beneath our mundane exteriors that typically focus on the practical, often superficial, needs, desires, or goals of daily life. For there resides the aspirational — the possibility of unearthing individualized human betterment that encourages us to help those who suffer from what life has chosen to mete out to them.

Inherent in that longing is an almost poetic sense that suggests that these aspirations for mankind that are applauded by lay philosophers may be revealed best, and not coincidentally, during the worst worldwide health crisis in history. Perhaps, from the perspective of some theists, there is a sense that tragedy leading to human betterment is actually the Will of God Himself. That is, His effort to reveal to us what ultimately matters in His regime: Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World).

Either way, it argues that the worldwide weakened state leads or enables us to search beneath the facade of our shallow, outer existences for a far better reason for why we are here at all. Not to be able to afford a bigger house; to join a “better” golf club; to be able to exhibit an exalted “status” in the place where we have landed in society. And not to complain about how the pandemic has adversely impacted, even infuriates us, individually.

Seemingly on the very day that COVID-19 had its deepest death toll in New York (the day’s toll nearing 800), someone I know and highly regard distributed his periodic tear-jerking email to the entire firm where he works – to “all users,” those willing and perhaps some unwilling recipients.  In it, he applauds contributors to his fundraising effort to defeat breast cancer. With the pandemic raging so feverishly and out of control, many of his colleagues had anticipated a temporary probation from his ongoing campaign. After all, his cause, noble for sure, would seem on that day so out of touch given the daily deaths at the hands of a totally different killer. But no; he boldly continued at it, almost as if nothing else mattered.

A few days later, out of the blue, a former colleague requested help. On his website, he advocates for sanctuary seekers traveling across the Southern border, highlighting the drowning deaths at the Rio Grande River of Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his two year old daughter, Valeria. Although it didn’t say so exactly, his request essentially solicited help from those who might commit themselves to that cause. People across the United States were locked down with (or without) their families due to COVID-19, some desperately worried whether they could continue to feed their families during the financial crisis, let alone escape the deadly virus seeking to target virtually everyone. For even those sympathetic to the plight of sanctuary seekers, at that moment in time what exactly was he thinking?  As if the plight of one escaping their homeland would be a priority for the “great unwashed” homebound, scared about his or her own mortality due to COVID during the lockdown.

And now, George Floyd.  So many — unquestionably, largely, young people — have daily thrown caution to the wind to protest en masse the murder of Mr. Floyd. They have done so, seemingly oblivious to the likelihood that mere physical proximity to others during the protests will spike the COVID death toll – for the protesters themselves and perhaps their families. They have decided to be heard even though the police might have conceivably attacked some protesters who go off the rails (or even those who don’t), but also how the virus might gratuitously attack anyone in its way.  And while peaceful protesters of all stripes are doing “God’s work,” if you will, in participating, one would think black people who surely have had the greatest stake in the protest, would outnumber other protesters by far, given how police abuse affects them the most. But, here, somewhat astonishingly, it seems that the protests have been highly attended by non-black marchers who are committed to the cause. And they all – black and white – have protested while their personal health and safety has been at risk because of the pandemic.

In each case, along with many other examples today, individuals focus on their causes, and somehow put to the side the deadly threat that faces them individually. For them, apparently, and perhaps not even thinking in these terms, their individualized instinct to engage in Tikkun Olam has remained paramount.  Put otherwise, what has moved their hearts  — be it breast cancer, the sanctuary-seeking immigrant, black people being victimized by police brutality, or whatever  — has taken control of the moment.  All risks to themselves aside.

What does this all mean?  Cynics, or even realists, will say it may all return to normal when COVID somehow — or as the president might say, “beautifully” — evaporates from our midst. Everyone, then, they say, will focus on their own idiosyncratic problems. Others, of a somewhat similar mind, will argue that those who have strayed into a “do-gooder” existence have done so simply because of the lockdown and consequently a personalized need to break out in some way. And maybe, those who comment this way would argue, given the reality of human nature, that “they’ll revert to life before.”

Maybe so, but shouldn’t we relish the current reality that tragedy may have allowed some — even if perhaps not permanently —  to find meaning in the commandment to “love your neighbor like yourself”?  The Hebrew word for “like yourself” is “kamocha.” The principal explanation for that time-honored phrase is, of course, that you should love him or her in the same way you would want to be loved by them.  Makes total practical sense.

Another explanation for “kamocha” is that you should love him because “he is like you.”  The pain that he (or she) is suffering, you yourself or your ancestors have suffered. The problem that he (or she) is enduring, you or your forebears have endured. Ergo, he or she is like you! And so, you should love him or her specifically because he or she is like you!

And maybe some of those who have turned, in this trying time, to helping others have done so precisely because they have somehow come to realize just that. And isn’t that where Tikkun Olam has always found its foundation?

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” Dale J. Degenshein assists in preparing the articles on this blog.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers.
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