Eliezer Shemtov
Trying to make a difference

Some Corona Lemonade

The story is told about an asteroid that was coming towards planet earth whose impact was going to cause great flooding and entire cities were going to be under water. According to forecasts, there were only ten days left until the strike. All the leaders came out with their advice. “Some exhorted, “Repent before it’s too late!” Others encouraged “Take the opportunity to enjoy what you didn’t have time for!” The Chief Rabbi of the largest city called all thhttps://blogs.timesofisrael.com/wp-admin/edit.phpe members of his community together and said: “Dear brothers and sisters, we have only ten days to learn to live under water!” 

There are many different voices that one hears these days in response to the pandemic. Voices of sanity and tranquility, voices of anxiety and panic, voices that seek to “explain” the reasons for this “punishment”, practical voices that give advice on how to make the most of your time in quarantine, and so on.  

To a greater or lesser extent, uncertainty is everywhere.

The uncertainty present on all levels as a result of the coronavirus is unprecedented. The streets are deserted. Schools, shopping malls, cinemas and stadiums are empty. Even the synagogues are forced to close their doors for now. And for good reason. How can you tell if the person you’re talking to isn’t infected? How can you tell if you yourself are not infected, since it can take weeks for symptoms to manifest themselves? How do I know who touched that doorknob? It’s not a matter of paranoia, but of prudence. They say that any action taken before a pandemic will seem exaggerated; any action taken after that will seem insufficient.

I am confident that soon the coronavirus will be a closed chapter of history, with the means to prevent and/or cure it having been discovered.

I am not a physician to be giving my opinion as to what measures should be taken beyond what is indicated by the government authorities of each country. Nor am I a spiritual authority of the stature to be able to interpret what such a “shock” means. The education I had as well as my personal life experience lead me to look for lessons in each experience. The same is true regarding this experience that is affecting us all. It would be a shame if we did not draw lessons that continue to serve us in daily life long after the coronavirus becomes a distant memory.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned so far.

Appreciation. Every day we thank G-d for the things in life that work for us to such an extent that sometimes we don’t pay much attention to what we are saying. We take them for granted. Surely, after the pandemic passes, we will appreciate the simple things in life like being able to open the door of our house or refrigerator without disinfecting the handle before touching it or disinfecting our hands afterward. And how about the simple pleasure of being able to talk to family and friends face to face?

The value of the individual. There are those who see the pandemic as a sign of how powerless we human beings are. “We thought we controlled everything and now we see that we don’t.” I drew an opposite and –in my humble opinion– much more important conclusion: the power of the individual. It was the behavior of a single individual that affected all of humanity. Interestingly, Maimonides [1] alerted us to this fragile balance centuries ago, based on the Talmud [2] that taught us the same concept thousands of years ago: “One must always see oneself as well as the whole world as balanced between good and evil. With a single good action [word or thought] he can change his balance and consequently that of the whole world for the better and bring for himself and for them redemption and salvation.” The Rebbe –may his merit shield us– quoted this dictum often to emphasize the value of every thought, word and action of every human being. For millennia it seemed to be an exaggeration to say that a single person can impact the entire world. Today we see that it is no exaggeration. If a single person can have a negative effect on absolutely all of humanity, how much more so when he or she does something positive.

The value of the expert opinion. One of the most sought-after things, even more than masks and gel, is the expert opinion. This is no time for much “democracy”. We can’t “vote” on what most people want to do or not do. We can’t allow the infected to go out and mingle among the people because “it’s their life and they can do with it whatever they want”. The right to diagnose and determine the measures to be taken both to protect oneself as well as others is in the hands of experts in the field. There may be differences of opinion between experts, but those who are not experts would not dare to contradict them. At most, they can ask questions and ask for explanations. Not all “truths” are true and not all truths are relative. The same is true of Judaism: there are codes, protocols and experts who have the right to give their opinion and the right to argue among themselves. Those who do not have the proper training have two options: to study so as to be able to give their opinion or to trust those who have already done so. 

Don’t overestimate yourself. One of the predominant concerns during a pandemic is to understand how the virus is transmitted, how to avoid getting infected and how to stop its spread. It is the job for experts because it is something you cannot see with your naked eye. The same is true for many standards in Judaism such as purity and impurity and Kashrut. To say that these are irrelevant norms since they are not visible is an argument that after Corona is untenable. Those who thought this way about the coronavirus, believing themselves free of contamination because they did not see any symptoms, were surely instrumental in infecting others and spreading the disease. Lesson: don’t judge things solely based on what you can see with your physical eye.

Don’t underestimate yourself. It often happens that when you make the effort to do something positive, you question the effect it may have had because you do not see immediate results. The coronavirus teaches us that a small contact can have a big impact, even though you might only get to see it much later on. You have to make every effort to do good and then pray to G-d to crown your efforts with success.

Keep safe and may the outer limitations help you access and unshackle your inner freedom.

  1. Mishneh Torah, Teshuvah 3:4
  2. Kidushin 40b
About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, born in in Brooklyn, NY in 1961. Received Smicha From Tomchei Temimim in 1984 and shortly after was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may his merit shield us, together with his wife Rachel to establish the first Beit Chabad in Montevideo, Uruguay and direct Chabad activities in that country. He has authored many articles on Judaism that have been published internationally. Since publishing his popular book on intermarriage, "Dear Rabbi, Why Can't I Marry Her?" he has authored several books in Spanish, English and Hebrew dealing with the challenges that the contemporary Jew has to deal with.
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