Observations From Along Pandemic’s Way

As a lifelong student of Talmud- at least since fifth grade- I was taught from a very early age to question what the broader implications of a text or teaching might be. One of my earliest memories of Yeshiva instruction was my rebbe saying to our class “What do we learn from this?”

In the spirit of “what do we learn from this,” I will share a few news items that have caught my attention over these past weeks, and see if maybe we can unpack their broader meaning. One may be more subtle than the other, but as The Little Prince so eloquently taught us, the truly important things are often hidden from the eye…

Thing One:

As I write, New York City, which has been particularly hard-hit by COVID-19, is struggling to respond responsibly to a painful video that is all over our local news. I lay no claim to having all the facts here- they are yet to be clearly and irrefutably established. But as has been widely reported, and attested to by numerous videos taken by bystanders, some NYC police officers confronted three or four young people-some appearing to be of color- in the East Village neighborhood of the city, ostensibly in an effort to enforce social distancing among them. The situation quickly devolved into a physical confrontation. At least one of the alleged violators was slapped repeatedly, and thrown forcefully to the ground, so as to be handcuffed. It seems, according to reports that I have heard on the news, that a small quantity of marijuana was found in their possession, as well as a few thousand dollars in cash. One might offer conjectures as to what those people were up to, but the initial contact between them and the police, by the police’s own admission, was about social distancing. The scene was ugly, and violent.

Compare and contrast-

By now, we have all seen videos of “anti-closure” demonstrations this past week in the state houses of Michigan and Ohio, and also in southern California.  The one in Lansing, Michigan, against the closure policy of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, was, at least to me,  particularly jarring.

Protestors dressed head to toe in camouflage uniforms stood together outside the state house and inside, on its balcony, brandishing loaded AR-15 assault rifles (Michigan is an open-carry state). They were doing their best to look as threatening as they possibly could, armed to the teeth… not sure against what, but Lord, they were armed to the teeth. Inside, on the floor level, screaming protestors, all unmasked and many looking- you should excuse me- as if they had just walked out of a caricatured road-stop diner or bar in the booniest neighborhood you can imagine- screamed at the masked guards, none of whose guns were drawn, barring the entrance to the inner chamber. The looks on the protestors’ faces were of pure, venomous anger, begging for a fight. Whether or not they were spewing COVID-19 germs at the guards we cannot know, but this much is for sure. Their actions, and those of the armed thugs outside the state house- were as provocative as could be. I cannot, for the life of me, imagine how those besieged guards held their ground without engaging in a fight.

And this is also for sure: all of those protestors, as were the ones in Ohio and Huntingdon Beach, California- were white. And some of them were carrying overtly anti-Semitic banners and signs.

Marshaling his best Charlottesville persona, President Trump referred to those protestors in Lansing as “good people” who are angry, encouraging Governor Whitmer to “make a deal” with them.

What do we learn from this?

Thing Two:

All of you on social media have probably, by now, seen any one of a number of videos of wild animals making themselves quite comfortable where they aren’t ordinarily found. I’ve seen the wild goats of Ein Gedi, Israel- usually visible only on distant mountain tops- meandering on a pedestrian walkway down below, where tourists congregate. Also, families of wild boars (or some such animal) paraded on the streets of Haifa and also Paris, coyotes were observed roaming in Ganei Yehoshua in Tel Aviv, entire herds of magnificent bucks made themselves comfortable on lawns in London, dolphins were reported cavorting in the unusually clean waters of the Venice canals, and many more such sightings. Additionally, climatologists have reported that the air quality in some of the most polluted areas of the world, like Peking, is the cleanest it’s been in decades. Previously detected worrisome holes in the earth’s ozone layer have completely closed up.

Again… what do we learn from this.

Regarding “thing one,” and the issue of social distancing and its selective enforcement…

I’m trying to imagine what might have happened if those overtly hostile, fully armed and camouflaged protestors gathered in violation of social distancing rules had been people of color, and not white. How many nanoseconds would it have taken- surely here in New York City, but I would imagine in many other places in this country- for police to assess the situation as a clear and present danger to public safety and confront them head on, resulting in mass arrests, if not worse. Would the President have deemed them “good people who are angry,” or would he have sanctioned “liberating” those locations from the barbarians at the gate?

What do we learn from this? Racism as a leitmotif of the current pandemic is writ large in how our country and its leaders respond to perceived threat. Right-wing, crazed and armed militia types are indulged in their anger, but it doesn’t take much for an encounter with a few folks in a tough New York neighborhood, ostensibly to enforce social distancing, to devolve into violence and arrest. It is an ugly picture of America in 2020, and a disturbingly penetrating picture of Donald Trump’s America.

Regarding “Thing Two,” and observed changes in the natural world…

Weeks ago, my daughter-in-law, a parent of three young children, commented that it seemed as if God was giving all of humanity a “time-out.” We had been sent to our rooms for an unspecified amount of time to contemplate our mistakes and wrongdoings against the environment- God’s world- and consider how we might make amends for them. In the interim, nature was, in essence, re-booting, reverting, as it were, to original factory settings- a kind of return to Eden.

The more I think about what she said, the more I like it. Anyone who uses technology will surely know that a good reboot can solve a multitude of problems.

But I would like to add an additional thought, a kind of ancillary observation on the reboot idea. If nothing else, the images of those animals wandering around our everyday world are a devastating insight into the degree to which urban sprawl has invaded their space. They’re not invading our world; they’re reclaiming it. It is we who have invaded their space, and not the other way around. We can’t unbuild the buildings that exist, but maybe one of the lessons we’re intended “to learn from this” is that endless expansion into previously virgin territories may some day- sooner than we think- come back to plague us in unimagined ways.

Some observations from along pandemic’s way…


About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.
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