Pandemic and the Fourth of July
Although it sounds strange and hard to believe, in this week’s parsha we read in the Torah about a subject that has been worrying us the most for more than 4 months, a story of an epidemic.
In the Torah, this epidemic is one of snakes. It appears in the book of Bemidbar, chapter 21:4-9, and the Torah tells us how this epidemic affected the People, physically and emotionally, who once again complained to Moshe and asked him to return to Egypt. “For this you took us out of slavery? To die in the desert by being bitten by snakes?”
The People’s first reaction was despair. Then something very strange happened. God commanded Moshe to make a copper serpent and hang it like a banner for all to see. This amulet was known as Nechushtan. Its name denotes a play on words. In Hebrew: נחש נחושת, something like copper cobra.
But even more interesting is the fact that when someone saw that amulet, they would become immune to the snake bite that caused the epidemic. Many may think that this story is only magic, but I think not. It seems to me that there is more than magic in the biblical message.
I believe that Nechushtan is a visible symbol, an awareness. Seeing it, people became aware of the seriousness of their situation, and looked for alternatives that go beyond despair.
Scientists try to find the causes of viruses, but what we don’t understand are the reasons, if there are any. The rabbis interpreted the snake epidemic as the product of לשון הרע = gossip and slander. That is to say, they found an ethical teaching for these phenomena
In other words, we cannot explain why viruses like COVID-19 appear, which has already killed more than half a million human beings, and is causing so much damage and suffering, but we can try to understand what ethical behaviors we should adopt to confront it, those of solidarity and the common good.
We understand the basic reactions: the need to work and not lose the source of parnasa (livelihood). We understand how it is tiring to be alone and the fatigue of interacting through a computer screen. We understand not being able to hug our children, grandchildren, and family members. However, as it appears in the Torah story, despair and haste are not going to lead us to fruition. To despair is to lose oneself in an absurd irrationality, unlike awareness, which is exactly the opposite.
For me, the rabbinical interpretation of the Nechushtan leads us to think this Fourth of July, about the moral and social epidemics that were hidden and showed up together with the COVID-19. Today we have no snakes, but social ills that shake the foundations of this extraordinary nation, that visionaries and heroes dreamed and worked for the creation of a society based on values such as justice and equality. Brutality, racism, supremacist ideas, discrimination on economic, sexual, ethnic, or religious grounds. These are all part of a social epidemic.
As I said, I understand Nechushtan as that awareness. Just as COVID-19 orders us to change our customs for the common good and the preservation of everyone’s life, the moral epidemic should lead us to rethink our personal and social attitudes towards these ills.
Yudi and I arrived in the US just eight months ago, and we are still trying to understand not only the English language, but the customs and culture of the country. So I will not dare to issue any value judgment. At the same time, my Jewish chutzpa pushes me to say that for me, this Fourth of July implies a Nechushtan, that is, an awareness of the other pandemic that hides behind COVID-19.
And with all respect, I invite you to warn the Nechushtan that arises from the spirit of the Constitution of this nation, and from the human values on which it was founded.
At the same time, I understand that what is really going to fight the epidemic is not only soap, hand sanitizer and masks, but our minds. The key to face every epidemic is in our head, in our thoughts, in our reason, in our conscience and in our hearts.