The UK Government has now announced a new lockdown for, at least, the next four weeks. Whether one agrees with the details of the various restrictions or feels there is a better approach to tackling the problem, everyone’s goal is undoubtedly the same: to stem the tide of the increasing infection rate. I, for one, will be following the rules and hope that we can work together to keep everyone safe.
There are, however, other viruses spreading through our society which are not being held back by surgical masks or PPE. In fact, the current situation only seems to be exacerbating them and the only mask that halts their advance, namely self-control, is increasingly not being worn.
These growing sicknesses are, perhaps, most visible on social media but are certainly not confined to that space. I am referring, of course, not to microbial viruses or bacteria but to negative virtues and habits which are just as contagious and frighteningly harmful. Anger, blame-culture, disrespect, scorn, vilification and much more are things I have painfully watched increase in recent months and they are far from limited to one group or individual. I have seen these traits displayed across the board and directed at every group I can imagine, from rabbis to students to charedim and the elderly and everyone in between.
To be clear, this is not directed at any individual who has had a rant or vented frustration – we all lose control on occasion. But that loss of control needs to be recognised for what it is – an error that requires correction – rather than being accepted as an appropriate reaction.
The city of Sodom, who’s destruction is described in Parshat Vayera, is a prime example of this distinction. The Mishna (Avot 5:10) defines one who exemplifies the attitude of “what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours” either as an average person or as someone who epitomises the character trait of the city of Sodom. This seems very puzzling – is the average person really the epitome of terrible behaviour? And is this attitude really so bad? What exactly did Sodom do wrong?
Herein lies a crucial difference. The average person may well feel, on occasion, that they do not want to share and while this may be contrary to chessed (kindness) that was the lifework of our forefather Avraham, it is normal – in the words of the mishna: “beinoni” (average). Sodom, however, took this trait to a different level – it was not just something that a normal person felt on occasion, there was a wholesale adoption of this trait into the very culture of the society. This attitude evolved from being limited to one individual or another to becoming the foundation stone of every element of life in Sodom.
What we see is that there is a world of difference between displaying an attitude on occasion and embracing that attitude as acceptable – the specific case of the Mishna centres around selfishness vs. chessed but the underlying lesson is that it is the adoption and justification of negative values which destroys society. While each individual act may not be so terrible, the slow, subtle shift in values is much more worrying and harder to change. When we shout at someone for not wearing a mask, whatever justification we give ourselves, the negative impact of that is not just felt by the person who has been shouted at, it infects the shouter with a mindset that is at least as damaging. When we continue to do so, and tell ourselves that this behaviour is acceptable, the harm spreads, as unseen as a microscopic disease.
This is not to say that we must ignore rule-breaking, the only question is how we choose to react to it. The easiest way is simply to vent – to get off our chest the frustration, and sometimes fear, that we feel. But this does little to change another’s behaviour, in fact, it often makes it worse. A blame-culture, for instance, far from helping people to improve simply encourages them to hide their misdeeds in the future.
The only way to defeat the coronavirus is for us to work together, doing things that may make our lives more difficult but that we hope, in the long run, will make things better for us all. My sincerest hope is that we can adopt a similar approach in stamping out the other viruses making their way through our communities. Let us avoid the easy routes of writing rude Facebook comments against people we disagree with, maligning large groups of people as being the cause of all our problems or berating individuals for seemingly (and sometimes obviously) breaking the rules. Instead we must follow the more difficult paths that will benefit everyone in time. Choosing to try and understand, to withhold judgement and to treat every individual in a way that befits the fact that they are made in the image of God.