On Spoons and Masks

People wearing face masks. (Pensee Sauvage, Shutterstock)

There is an old Chasidic parable. A soul goes up to heaven to meet its Maker. A Heavenly court is convened to determine the worthiness of the soul to enter Paradise. After careful examination, the Court was hung — the soul had as many merits as sins, and no compelling factors weighed in favor or Paradise or Purgatory. Finally, unable to decide, the heavenly Court offered the soul a choice to go to Paradise or Purgatory. The soul wisely answered that having not seen either place, it was unable to make an informed decision and ask for a tour. The Court agreed.

Angels escorted the soul into Purgatory. Upon entering Purgatory, the soul encountered the strangest scene: There was a banquet table set with white linen and the finest china. The table was full of the most exquisite delicacies one could imagine. There was an abundance of delicious food and the finest wines. Yet, people sitting on both sides on this banquet table were all sour-faced, no one was happy, nobody was eating. Curious soul scrutinized the scene and discovered that everyone sitting at the table had one hand tied behind their back and held a spoon with the only free hand. The spoon was unusually long—longer than one’s arm. Suddenly, the soul realized why nobody was eating—the spoon was so long that no matter how hard they tried, they invariably missed their mouth. There it was, starving people sitting at a banquet table full of delicious food and wines, yet unable to taste any of it. Frustrated and exasperated, they all were in deep anguish. The soul noted to itself, “This is not a nice place, I don’t think I want to end up here.” “I saw enough,” said the soul to the angels and asked to see Paradise.

Angels obliged and took the soul to Paradise. At first glance, the scene was set the same way: There was a banquet table set with white linen and the finest china. The table was full of the most exquisite delicacies one could imagine. There was an abidance of delicious food and the finest wines. But how different was this place: People sitting at the table were happy, cheerful, and eating and drinking with gusto. They were enjoying themselves immensely. The soul examined the scene carefully and noticed that, just as in Purgatory, everyone had on hand tied behind their back, and everyone held the same long spoon in their free hand—too long to feed oneself. The difference was that in this place, people found the solution to their predicament. Instead of exasperating themselves trying to reach their own mouth with that grotesquely-long spoon, they fed each other. The spoon turned out to be just the right size to reach the friend sitting across the table. “This is the place I want to be in,” exclaimed the soul.

Portrait of a woman and a man feeding soup to each other. By Everett Collection

The moral of this parable is self-evident: if we each worry about our own needs, we end up starving; but, if we feed each other, we will all be able to share in the feast.

The current Coronavirus pandemic presented challenges heretofore unknown to humanity. The virus does not differentiate between rich and poor, black and white, Jews and Gentiles, between people of different religions, nationalities, or political persuasions. We are all in it together. This virus is an equal-opportunity killer. Let’s be honest; it is scary. Our instincts of self-preservation kick in. We desperately want to save our families. We want to save ourselves. But there is little we can do. There are no vaccines and very few treatment options. If we worry only about ourselves, we are doomed. However, if we use the proverbial spoon to feed each other, we will survive. At least most of us will.

What is this spoon? Today, it is masks. At other times, it may be about food, money, shelter, or other assistance we can offer our fellow-human. But today, it is about masks. The thing is, surgical masks are not only meant to protect those who wear them; they are primarily meant to protect everyone else from those who wear them. A surgeon wears a mask not to protect herself from her patient, but to protect the patient from herself. To be sure, there are N95 respirators that protect those who wear them, but they are in scarce supply and should be left to medical personnel and healthcare providers—modern-day heroes who fight this war on the front lines, endangering their own lives. Most of us can use regular surgical masks or bandanas that may not protect us, but will protect others from us. Here is the punchline: If we all do it, we will all be protected!

Wearing a mask in public is a sign of respect, of care, of compassion. Wearing a mask, we publicly declare that we care about other people, not only about ourselves. Conversely, if some young, foolish people think that not wearing a mask is cool or a sign of bravery, they could not be more wrong. The only thing it says about such a person is that he is either stupid or self-centered—and probably both. Those are the people who will invariably infect others, cause illness, death, and despair. Let us show that we care, that we love others, not only ourselves.

Let’s all wear masks. Let’s feed and protect each other. Together, the human race will survive. Those of us who will make it to the other side of this pandemic will come out kinder and better people. And those who may not… at least, we will know we did the right thing and earn our place in Paradise.

About the Author
Dr. Alexander Poltorak is Chairman and CEO of General Patent Corporation. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Physics at The City College of New York. In the past, he served as Assistant Professor of Physics at Touro College, Assistant Professor of Biomathematics at Cornell University Medical College, and Adjunct Professor of Law at the Globe Institute for Technology. He holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics.
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