Cause and Effect

The body is on trial these days.

The human body, in every nation, is fighting tooth and nail against the Coronavirus which is ravishing homes, neighborhoods, businesses, schools, houses of worship, whole economies.

There are bodies of medical research, working around the clock, churning out and testing hypotheses and experiments in pursuit of a cure.

There are bodies of work in journalism, already voluminous, tracing this pandemic and surely there will be bodies of fiction and poetry and music that will reckon creatively with this unprecedented global pandemic.And there is our body politic, as divided as ever by this health crisis and sometimes seeming to fail as often as it succeeds in developing the most effective, humane and collaborative way forward so that no one should unduly and unnecessarily suffer the insidious effects of this plague.

Most of us, rightly I believe, rely upon science and medicine to help us see the way forward. We depend upon human ingenuity, unbounded curiosity, and shared information so that the puzzle of the pandemic can be solved. And most of us also seek wisdom, which isn’t always necessarily rooted in scientific inquiry, to shed light.

In this week’s Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora, we do a deep dive into the ancient science of curing plague which our tradition believed to be of a spiritual nature. The contamination of illness occurred, our ancestors believed, because of sin, plain and simple. Affliction was seen as punishment for bad behavior. And as the Torah makes clear, that behavior could be remedied by following the prescription of the priest. In most cases of contamination, the priest would examine the patient; declare the patient impure; and prescribe a regimen of isolation until such a time as the patient could be declared healthy and ready to re-emerge. An ancient quarantine, as it were. In this regard, the ancient art of Jewish medicine dovetails nicely with contemporary practice. Our ancestors knew that a plague uncontained could ravage a society with death and destruction.

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler

But in what ways may wisdom, non-medical insight, shed light? The Jewish philosopher and rabbi, Maimonides, a physician himself, reminds us that in the Torah and the Hebrew bible, prophets played a critical role in helping the people understand why there is suffering at all and what human agency may have to do with it. Building on this theme, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953) argued that the whole idea of spiritual quarantine was to guide a person toward teshuva, or repentance. The time in isolation, he taught, was meant to be a period of intense reflection, introspection, as to acute as well as broader causes of the affliction.

And here, I believe, there is much wisdom for all of us. Looking, for instance, at the most greatly devastated areas of New York City, we see that those suffering the worst are in the most crowded, the most impoverished, and the most racially segregated neighborhoods. It would require a senselessly cruel and ignorant leader to claim there is a God who punishes those neighborhoods for their spiritual shortcomings. Such a claim would fly in the face of the Bible’s own commandments to “love thy neighbor as thyself” and to “be kind to the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

But is it equally wrong to examine how our own lack of shared responsibility may be a particular “sin” that has us in this terrible moment? Did we not plan as we should have? Did we not allocate resources in the best way imaginable? Do the very structures of our society, our daily life, mitigate toward destruction rather than progress? If we can agree that we don’t believe in a God who is punishing any of us with this virus, then what role can our faith and the pursuit of wisdom provide us in order to see a path toward healing and recovery?

Rabbi Dessler calls this the “cause-effect reversal.” “The physical factor — such as the spread of germs or virus — is merely a consequence of the spiritual defect. What we consider the cause is, from a spiritual perspective, the effect.” In other words, we are, in many regards, responsible for much of the suffering by which we see ourselves victimized. In our isolation, we must ask ourselves again and again, as part of our own shared repentance, if we always do all we can to minimize or alleviate human suffering.

But our shared time in quarantine may reveal to us a greater wisdom about what kind of city we live in; what kind of nation we are building together with our neighbors; what the fundamental expressions of our civil society can and must be. This type of teshuva, deep reflection on our actions that have placed all of us in quarantine, necessitates an understanding that when one part of our “body politic” suffers, the entire body is threatened.

The rabbis in the Talmud teach us this as well in one of the most noted, ethical precepts of Judaism’s universalist approach to life: “Whoever destroys a soul is considered as one who destroyed a whole world; and whoever saves a soul is considered as one who saved an entire world.”

Like Jewish communities across the world for more than two thousand years, JCP has been founded on the eternal principles of Simon the Righteous, who said in Pirkei Avot, “The world stands on three things: Torah, Avodah, Gemilut Hasadim, on Learning, on Service, and Deeds of Loving Kindness.”

These are the values that sustain us in good times and bad: The endless pursuit of questions and answers in search of wisdom; a spiritual recognition that each of us, regardless of race, age, gender, or ability are made in the Image of God; and the infinite possibility for us to take responsibility for ourselves and for others through acts of love, kindness, generosity and support.

May we see our way forward together in this challenging time to be reunited again, ever stronger, and ever devoted to building a city, a nation, and a world of justice, good health, and peace.