Alexander I. Poltorak
Alexander I. Poltorak

On wars and pandemics

By The White House from Washington, DC - The 75th Anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, Public Domain

This Sunday was the 9th of May, the VE day, on which we commemorate the victory in Europe in WWII. Not widely commemorated, let alone celebrated in the United States, V-Day, as it was called in Russia, was widely celebrated in my old country. In fact, it was the most important and sacred holiday in Russia. On this day, when our town in the South of Russia was drenched in lilac, we, as all schoolchildren, bought flowers to deliver to graves of fallen soldiers and living veterans of the war. We sat and listened to their stories — stories of heroism and self-sacrifice. This day is forever edged in my memory and in my psyche. On this day, every year, and often in between, I think of the meaning of life and the meaning of war. Few things in this world are more horrible than a war. And yet, wars can teach us valuable lessons about life — lessons of heroism, self-sacrifice, and unity.

***

War is a social construct. Countries that wage wars are human societies. To be adequately understood, wars need to be analyzed in the context of the social interaction between the people and the state—the societal dynamic. Like most issues, societal dynamics could be understood from the point of view of dialectic tension between the society as a whole and its member or, in broader philosophical terms, the tension between the general (klal) and particular (prat).

In Talmudic thought, the dynamic of klal (general, the whole) and prat (particulars, individual parts, details) is at the center of Torah hermeneutics. Any concept, object, or biblical verse could be analyzed as a whole, from a more general, holistic perspective, or it could be viewed as the sum total of its parts, in which case the focus is on the details and the particulars. The Oral Torah provides thirteen rules for biblical exegesis. These rules were formulated by Rabbi Yishmael in the Baraita as the introduction to Sifra, the halahic midrash to Leviticus. Of the thirteen principles, eight principles (numbers 4–11) involve the dynamics of klal and prat. One might say klal and prat are the central themes of Torah exegesis. This dialectic tension between klal and prat, between general and particular, is responsible in no small measure for the body of Oral Torah as expounded in Mishna and the Talmud.

This dichotomy was symbolized by the two trees planted in the Garden of Eden—the Tree of Life (representing the principle of klal) and the Tree of Knowledge (representing the principle of prat). In physics, we find a similar tension between klal and prat, between the general and the particular. It is wave-particle duality. It is no coincidence that, in the English language, the words “particle” and “particular” share the same root, in that both come from the Latin particula, meaning a “little bit” or a “part.” As I explained in my essay “Abel and Cain Conflict—Wave-Particle Duality,” based on the writings of the Mitteler Rebbe, Rabbi Dovber Schneuri (1773–1827), Abel personified the klal principle in klal-prat duality, whereas Cain represented the prat principle.

The conflict between Abel and Cain, dramatically depicted in the Bible in Abel’s murder by his brother, Cain, can be seen as a metaphor of the tension between the society as a whole (klal) and its members (prat). Taxes are at the epicenter of this conflict. Individuals naturally want to keep their hard-earned money to themselves and their families. However, society as a whole needs funds to maintain its army, police, social services, etc. These funds can be raised by levying taxes on its constituent members. Much of the political tension between Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. and between conservative parties and liberal parties in other democratic societies revolve around taxes. It is important to realize that neither political position is inherently right or wrong—the challenge is to find a healthy balance that fairly satisfies individuals’ and society’s needs. And, indeed, all administrations, Republicans or Democrats, strive to reach that balance that, from their perspective, will be the best for everyone.

 

There is one situation when the balance between the interests of the society (state) as a whole (klal) and individual citizens (prat) get completely off-kilter — a war. During wars, the overarching objective is to win the war at all costs, even at the horrific cost of the lives of many individuals. Countries that go to war are willing to pay that price — they send their soldiers to die at war to deliver the victory to the country as a whole. An individual gets sacrificed for the greater good of society. The prat gets negated in favor of the klal.

War is a bloody business. People kill and get killed in wars. Soldiers die for their country fighting in wars. What I find most interesting is that even in democratic societies, the decision to sacrifice the interests — and, indeed, lives — of individual citizens for the greater good of the society is not made unilaterally by governments — it is often supported by patriotic citizens, who volunteer to fight in wars that they perceive as just.

My father was too young to be drafted at the beginning of World War II. He was only seventeen. However, he volunteered to serve in the Red Army to fight the Nazis. Before long, he was fighting on the front lines. Every day, as a platoon commander, he had to be the first to jump from the trenches, to lead his platoon to battle. Every day, he faced the barrage of enemy bullets flying by while looking death in the eye. I can only wonder how this eighteen and then a nineteen-year-old young man had the courage to do that. Would I be able to do that? I will never know…

The instinct of self-preservation is, perhaps, the most powerful biological force. We instinctively recoil from anything that potentially can cause pain or danger, let alone death. How can young men go to battle override this powerful instinct? The answer must be that they have already ceased to exist — at least in their minds. A man who is not alive is not afraid of death. But these young soldiers going to battle are non-existent in a very peculiar way. They cease to exist not because they are resigned to die — because they know that they will likely be killed sooner or later, if not today, then tomorrow, if not tomorrow than, perhaps, a day later… They cease to exist not because of depression, resignation, the sense of inevitability of death — not at all! Rather, they cease to exist as individuals (prat), while they are very much alive as part of the whole (klal). This paradoxical psychological state is unique to war and is unknown to anyone who never smelled gunpowder on a battlefield, who never looked death in the eye.

Soldiers, I think, are ready to commit acts of heroism and sacrifice their lives because, in their minds, they already ceased to exist as individuals; they only perceive themselves as a part of the whole — platoon, division, army, their country. So long as the whole survives, they think, they survive. So long as the whole lives, they live. So long as their country emerges victorious, they are victorious. They merge, as it were, into the whole, ceasing to perceive themselves as independent entities. The symbolism of this phenomenon is seen in the graves of the unknown soldiers, through which many countries honor their fallen heroes. It is a grave of an unknown soldier because the identity doesn’t matter; the name doesn’t matter. The individual (prat) doesn’t matter; only the whole (klal) matters.

This unique psychological state, called in Hebrew bitul b’mitziyut (essential nullification) is discussed in Chasidic thought at length. It is a state in which the ego completely dissolves in something greater than oneself. Chasidic Masters teach that the concept of bitul b’mitziyut is the primary tool on the quest for devekut — unio mistico — the union with the Divine. In the state of nullification of one’s ego (bitul), one merges one’s identity (prat) with the greater whole (klal). In the religious context, it is losing oneself in the Divine. In the social context of war, it is losing oneself in the nation as a whole.

During wars, not only the interests of individuals are trampled by the interests of the society, but their wishes, desires, and opinions, as well. Democracy is the first casualty of war. In an army, there is no democracy; there is a strict chain of command. Soldiers must obey their sergeants; sergeants must obey commanding officers; officers must obey generals; generals must obey chiefs of staff, who, in turn, must obey their commander in chief. Just try to imagine an army where each soldier thinks he is a general and has an opinion on where and how to fight the war. An army with soldiers-generals would not last very long.

***

We’ve been at war already for more than a year—a war against an invisible but no less brutal enemy — the Coronavirus. The COVID pandemic took many lives and changed the world we live in. To win the war against a pandemic takes military discipline and self-sacrifice, as in any war.

Unfortunately, during this war, many people refused to be soldiers; they became generals… at least in their minds, that is. People of all walks of life, who had no scientific education, overnight became M.D.s and Ph.D.s. Everyone became an instant expert on epidemiology, virology, immunology, infectious diseases, and public health. Everyone was opining with authority on medical issues, quoting the latest revelation they just read on Facebook or WhatsApp.

Everyone pontificated with great authority on such medical subjects as the efficacy of wearing masks, social distancing, and the danger of mass gatherings. When it came to anti-COVID vaccines, opinions became louder and more bizarre — how dangerous the vaccines are, and whether you will turn into a zombie upon vaccination, if male or, at least, lose your fertility, if female. At the beginning of the pandemic, it was amusing to watch every Tom, Dick, and Harry become experts on all things scientific.

However, very quickly, it became apparent that this arrogance was turning deadly. Because people refused to wear masks and kept gathering en mass for whatever occasions — be that weddings or funerals — the virus spread like wildfires. It burned through orthodox Jewish communities of Brooklyn, Monsey, and Lakewood, causing death and severe illness. We lost so many elderly people in the community. We lost some young people too. Just as during a war, each day brought new obituaries… often, people we knew well.

Wherever people disregarded science, medical advice, and authorities, this virus caused unnecessary death and suffering. It pains me to think how many lives could have been saved had people had more humility and simply followed CDC recommendations, the advice of local doctors, and restrictions instituted by local authorities. People forgot that we are at war. People forgot that everybody could not be generals during wars, and soldiers must follow generals, not pretend to be generals themselves. Many innocent people lost their lives during this pandemic because of the arrogance and egotism of people around them who helped spread the virus.

It is particularly upsetting when I think about the damage done by the COVID pandemic to the Jewish community, which was hit particularly hard. It hurts me because people disregarded not only science, medical knowledge, and local authorities — they disregarded Torah law.

Torah is very clear about this. Torah always gives the decisive vote to experts. In times of war, Torah dictates that we listen not to rabbis or politicians but only to generals, who are experts at war. In a time of illness, God forbid, Torah instructs us to consult doctors who are experts in the particular field. If there is a question of whether a patient may fast on Yom Kippur, the Torah give the decisive voice, not to religious authority, a rabbi, but to a medical authority, a doctor.. The Torah is also absolutely clear that we must listen to the majority opinion of the medical community, not one fringe doctor who contradicts everyone else. Somehow, all this Torah wisdom and law has been disregarded. Where was our bitul — our self-nullification that we learn so much about in Chasidic philosophy and works of Musar?

Thank God, and thanks to scientists, who tirelessly worked around the clock to develop vaccines; thanks to doctors, nurses, and medical personnel, who risked their own lives (as soldiers do at war) working in the emergency rooms around the county to save lives; thanks to science and medicine, we are winning the war against Coronavirus. But, sadly, we failed the test.

***

This Sunday, we celebrated the 76th anniversary of the victory in Europe (VE-day) in World War II. Winning wars requires discipline, self-sacrifice, and total bitul—when an individual (prat) mergers with the whole (klal). We won WWII and are winning, thank God, the war against this horrible pandemic. WWII was won through enormous sacrifice and the heroism of millions of soldiers — Russian, American, Jewish — like my father and grandfather. This war will be won by scientists and doctors, despite the best efforts of many citizens who sabotage them. The Greatest Generation deserves our gratitude, our praise, and our remembrance. Our generation did not fare so well.

Let us use this opportunity to think about the meaning of war — whether a war against a human enemy or a pathogen — the meaning of self-nullification prat and klal, (bitul) and self-sacrifice, and the meaning of social responsibility of doing something for the greater good.

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.
Related Topics
Related Posts
Comments