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The following is from Rabbi Moshe Meir Weiss
On June 11th, 2009 the World Health Organization declared the Swine Flu, otherwise known as H1-N1 influenza, to be a Phase Six pandemic. At the time of the writing of this article, it has spread to seventy countries. It is estimated that over three-quarters of a million people have this flu in New York alone. I would like to share with my dear readers some Torah reflections on these scary developments.
There is a famous quote by Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam) in Laws of Repentance [Chapter 3, Halachah 4] which is cited often during the month of Elul, the Hebrew month before Rosh Hashana. The Rambam says that one should view himself as if he is fifty percent meritorious and fifty percent sinful. And, furthermore, he should consider the possibility that the entire world is fifty percent meritorious and fifty percent guilty. Thus, if he commits one sin, he can tilt the entire world towards the side of guilt (on G-d’s scale of justice) and cause the destruction of the world. I confess that every time I studied this Rambam, I would view it as a dramatic theoretical concept to teach us how careful we must be with our every action. But, now I see it differently. One person in Mexico contracts the flu and a short while later it is in seventy countries and is seriously impacting millions of lives. Thus, the Rambam’s words, that one person’s actions can affect the entire world, are not exaggerated but are very real.
To further this concept, we are taught that the millions of people who were divinely eradicated in Sodom and Gommorah could have been saved by just ten righteous people. And, at the end of the book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon, the wisest of all men, teaches us that the whole world was worthy of creation for just one G-d-fearing person.
Now, let’s get a little bit more practical. We have a positive commandment in the Torah to protect our health, as it says, “That we should zealously guard our lives.” Thus, we should follow the CDC’s recommendations to wash our hands often, get ample sleep, and keep ourselves properly hydrated. The Talmud advises us in [Berachos 60b], “If there is a plague in the city, draw inward your feet.” In other words, avoid crowds where you are likely to come into contact with other infected people. The Talmud also advises us to be careful with money for it is a great carrier of infection because it is handled by so many people. We must be especially careful that our children not put money in their mouths. We also should wash our hands after coming into contact with money, before touching food, or any of our orifices.
Now, let’s talk about another important Torah consideration. If you are experiencing flu-like symptoms, do not go out amongst people. One Torah town sent out a community-wide email saying that if one suspects that they have the flu, they should not come to shul on Shabbos. I would like to add that this is not optional. Hillel teaches us, “What you wouldn’t like, don’t do to your friend.” We certainly wouldn’t like someone who is infected to sit next to us in shul. Be careful not to do so to someone else.
In the month of June, these precautions pose unique challenges. If your child has a fever and has final exams, and he or she has studied hard for this the entire year, what should the child do? An eighteen-year-old has confirmed swine flu but is graduating the next day. What a dilemma! On the other hand, what an opportunity to teach what Rabbi Akiva tells us, “Love your fellow like yourself; this is a great principle of the Torah.” Let’s remember that if your son or daughter infects a classmate, it doesn’t end there. This is a very virulent flu. They might go home to an elderly grandparent in the house or a pregnant or nursing mother, or a baby. What an opportunity to teach our children responsible Torah behaviors, and to be a, “A wise person who considers the long range consequences of his actions.”
Now let’s consider possible causes of this pandemic. The Mishna teaches us [Fifth chapter of Pirkei Avos, The Ethics of Our Fathers] that there are four times when plagues are likely to strike. The first, during the fourth year of the Sabbatical (the shmitah, or the seven year agricultural cycle); Second, the shmitah year itself; Third, the year following the shmitah, and Fourth, after the Jewish festivals. The reason that we are vulnerable at these times is because during the third and sixth year of the shmitah cycle we are commanded to give maaser oni, a tithe to the poor. Thus, on the following year, if G-d saw that we did not live up to our commitment to the needy, and we did not help them live, then G-d, measure for measure, interferes with our lives. Similarly, the year following the shmitah, G-d does an analysis of how we kept the Sabbatical year and if we assisted the shovsei shmitah, those farmers who courageously shut down their agricultural livelihood to keep the mitzvah of shmitah. If we were lacking in these obligations, then we are vulnerable to a plague. How powerful it is that this global pandemic is striking the year after shmitah! We should all take to heart the Mishnaic link between helping the poor and the diseased. Coupled with the fact that we know “tzedakah tatzil m’maves”, charity saves from death; this should give us a strong incentive to be charitable at this time.
The Zohar teaches us a fundamental lesson. ”G-d looked into the Torah and created the world.” This means that any function of the world was designed to further the dictates of the Torah. Thus, for example, G-d created genetics in order that we are better able to fulfill the Torah command of v’shinantom l’vonecha, to teach children, since because of genetics we are able to understand our children better. One therefore has to wonder why G-d made diseases that are infectious, spreading from one person to another. I believe it is an indication of a failing of interpersonal relationships. A case in point is the terrible epidemic of diphtheria that ripped through the disciples of Rabbi Akiva, killing all 24,000 of them. The Talmud [Yevamos] teaches us that they died, “because they didn’t honor one another.” Thus it was a failing of interpersonal coexistence. With a pandemic raging, we should all take stock of our bein adom l’chaveiro, our relationship with our fellows, and work on areas such as not holding a grudge, judging people favorably, avoiding lashon hara, (gossip and tale bearing or slander) and learning how to be more sensitive and caring to all.
The Talmud has several terms for an epidemic. It refers to it as rischa, a time of Divine anger. The Scriptures call it zam. But, the most popular name is dever. I don’t think that it is coincidental that it is the same Hebrew letters as dibur, speech, for “Death and life are in the hands of the tongue.” At such times we need to be especially vigilant of avoiding all sins of the mouth such as lashon hara and rechilus, gossip and slander, lying and revealing secrets, and especially the sin of nivul peh, vulgar speech, for the Talmud [Berachos] teaches us that the sin of nivul peh can lead to death.
In the year 1978, there was a disease in Yerushalayim which killed four married men and one yeshiva student. At that time the Steipler Gaon, Zt”l, Zy”a, said that the Talmud says the response to a plague is tzeakah, to cry out to Hashem. Elsewhere, it is recorded that the Steipler Gaon said that the learning of the Mishana is equivalent to saying Tehillim, Psalms for the benefit of the sick.
During these challenging days, during every one of our prayers, we should include a fervent request that those who were infected should quickly heal, and that the rest of us should not take ill. Remember the Talmudic dictum, “Whoever prays for his fellow man and needs the petition for himself as well, will be answered first.” We should also make sure to passionately thank G-d that we are healthy. In the merit of our Torah approach to this pandemic, may G-d grant all that are ill a speedy recovery, and bless all of us with long life, good health, and everything wonderful.