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Coronavirus: Not Yet the End of the World as We Know It


Sermon Parshat Terumah 5780

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ

There are moments, in dark times, when gallows humor is all that we have.

Because of all the terrible media out there about the Coronavirus, I’m told that Corona beer is changing its name. The new name is Ebola Beer.

And then, there are some people out there who are saying that the Coronavirus can’t last very long because it’s made in China…

Sorry about those jokes, but this has been a weird and challenging period, during which our attention has been focused on the spread of the Coronavirus, Covid-19, in various parts of the world, and fear of its potential impact has become widespread. This previously unknown disease has walloped China, of course, where it originated in Wuhan Province, apparently moving from bats and other mammals—I now know that a pangolin is an anteater with collagen scales—to humans, and it has become a near-catastrophic public health crisis there. It has now spread quite significantly to South Korea, Japan, Italy, Iran and a widening number of other countries, including a handful of cases so far here in the United States. While mortality is apparently fairly low for the virus, and most people who contract it aren’t even sick, some people are indeed dying, there is no vaccine for it yet, and no apparent cure. Travel to and from China has been interdicted, and the giant Chinese manufacturing empire and its huge economy have been profoundly affected, as has the world economy, obviously. Widespread predictions of a pandemic have panicked financial markets, with the Dow Jones losing well over 10% of its value in a few days, including its worst day ever, and there is no apparent end in sight. The Haj to Saudi Arabia, the most important pilgrimage in the world, has been suspended. Parts of Italy are off limits, as are sections of South Korea.

Look, being Jewish means that you have already thought about what it would be like to experience really terrible, generationally disastrous events. After all, we grew up thinking a lot about the Holocaust and reading books and watching movies and TV shows about it, which are still coming out regularly. Annually on Tisha B’Av we remember the cataclysmic destructions of the both the First and Second Temples, and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain, as well as various Crusader annihilations of German Jewish communities.

If you are historically oriented, and Jewish, annihilation is something you cannot help but have thought about. That tendency is not new. I once taught a class called “The End of the World as We Know It,” about the apocalypse in Jewish tradition. It was fascinating to read the words of people two thousand years ago envisioning collective, end-of-the-world destruction by plague, famine, sword and fire. Not cheerful, exactly, but fascinating nonetheless. Coronavirus may be new, but potential population annihilation is not a new problem.

Those Jewish apocalyptic visions, mostly from 2000 years ago, imagined total destruction as a punishment from God for human wrongdoing, a comeuppance for people who had been faithless or uncharitable or indulged in baseless hatred. They always included some aspect of plague or infection, which were endemic in the ancient world, exceedingly dangerous in the Middle Ages and are with us still, or perhaps again. While warfare is the most destructive force in our world, there is something insidious and terrifying about the potential spread of disease that might bother us more. Being healthy and then struck suddenly by some awful plague you can’t see coming is particularly awful, isn’t it?

The facts in this situation can be illuminating. Coronavirus, Covid-19, is scary and dangerous. But it hasn’t yet reached a point of pandemic, and it may not. The common flu still kills tens of thousands of people every year—perhaps as many as 60,000 people—and in recent times we have seen frightening outbreaks of SARS, Ebola and other potentially disastrous epidemic diseases. We might not be aware of it, but AIDS killed 770,000 people last year, over three quarters of a million; at its peak in 1997 over 3 million people a year were dying of AIDS, and entire generations in Africa, in particular, were decimated by it. The mortality rate for Ebola, which has killed well over 10,000 people, is 40%. So far, Coronavirus has killed 2,800 people, mostly in Wuhan and elsewhere in China, and the mortality rate appears to be between 5% and 15%.

It’s bad, of course, and frightening. But without in any way minimizing the danger of this respiratory disease, I’m not sure that panic is exactly the correct response.

This Coronavirus episode is exactly the kind of event that has an almost infinite capacity to terrify people before the true impact is known. Worse, it contributes to a general sense of hopelessness, since there is, in fact, very little any of us can actually do about a dangerous virus infecting people internationally. In fact, most of the things that people are doing in the US to prevent it from spreading are apparently ineffective at best. In general, the oldest methods of public health actions are likely to be the most effective: quarantine, sanitation and hygiene. That is, isolate people who are known to be infected or might be infected, wash your hands a lot, and if you are ill or your immune system is in any way compromised, stay home.

It’s interesting to note that the Torah used essentially the same means to try to prevent the spread of disease over 2500 years ago: take the infected person or people out of society for the duration of the disease, and after its course is run, have them thoroughly cleansed, and their clothing and homes thoroughly cleansed. Quarantine, hygiene and sanitation, Torah-style.

It’s hard to find good news in all of this, but I must say that knowing that nearly every epidemiologist in the world, including some prominent Israeli companies, are working on this with spectacular urgency is somewhat comforting. There is money to be made, too, if you patent the right vaccine, of course, so motivations both humanitarian and pecuniary are in play, which always moves things quickly.

There are many bad things going on in the world at any moment, and right now is no exception. In Syria, there is a catastrophic humanitarian situation in the war zone in the north of that troubled country, millions of people homeless in the middle of winter, perhaps half of them children stuck in the middle of aerial bombardments in snow with no home, heat, food or medical attention. Afghanistan is still in its endless civil war, Al-Qaeda and ISIS are teaming up in West Africa as they await the US troop withdrawal, Anti-Semitism continues its upward swing everywhere, and galloping climate change continues to dramatically impact our planet in a variety of terrible, destructive and unpredictable ways. There are a lot of things wrong at any one time, and that’s before we even talk about politics.

But this fear of imminent destruction is, generally speaking, premature. It is of course possible that this coronavirus is a new bubonic plague, the kind of genocidal disaster that empties cities and destroys economic function for generations. But the far, far greater likelihood is that we find a way past this potential disaster without the world actually ending, or even changing very much. The scientific experts are working hard on the problem, and they are the ones who need to do so. The government needs to act efficiently and competently, without panic or sloppiness or self-congratulation getting in the way of effective public health work. And besides taking reasonable precautions—I’d skip that cruise you were planning to the Orient, and avoid flights to Italy for the present—we need to focus on doing the right things in our own lives.

This week we read the Torah portion of Trumah, which as our fine drash informed us explores the creation of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, our first temple. In that portion we are told, “Asu Li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham—build me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among you.” That is our actual goal, to create places in our lives where God will dwell. That is true at times of joy and great success, and it is just as true at times of challenge and fear. Our charge is to make our lives worthy of God’s presence.

The Haftarah tomorrow, from the Book of Kings, describes a later, greater, similar structure, the First Temple in Jerusalem, Solomon’s Temple. It describes the best way to behave at times of public fear, which is also the best way to behave at all times.

We are told that “The word of the Lord came to Solomon, ‘This Temple that you are building, if you walk in My ways, and observe My statutes, and guard all of My commandments so that you do them, I will fulfill My covenant with you, that I made with your father King David. I will dwell in the midst of the children of Israel, and will never forsake my people, Israel.’”

The world as we know it is not ending. And our goal is to live our lives, and shape our own temple, so that we welcome the Holy One into our midst, through our caring, our actions and our dedication.