4 Things We Have Not Learned from COVID-19

Parshas Yisro shines a light on the pandemic and our own shortcomings

It has been almost a year since the Coronavirus began to make national headlines and impact how some people across the world celebrated Purim. After months of lockdowns, quarantines, tests, vaccines, and demonstrations, it might be helpful to have an internal dialogue. How did we do? Have we allowed ourselves to learn from this extraordinarily uncommon experience? How about as a community? Did we emerge stronger? If you ask yourself these questions in earnest, it is possible you will be disappointed by what you find. The Chillul Hashem that takes place in international media is an almost insignificant part of the story. What is a lot more important is the gaping holes it has exposed in our own perspectives on life.

Here are 4 things that we did not learn from COVID-19. If you find yourself nodding in agreement, perhaps you can look inside and change yourself. I know that it is true for me. I thought about these points and have noticed that I have fallen short. Perhaps you can open your heart and allow some of my observations to touch you, too.

1) The importance of the individual

Since the beginning of the pandemic, it was clear that there were certain groups that were more prone to be affected severely. Often, the goal of national limitations was to protect those individuals. We believe in the importance of the life of an individual, even if it causes discomfort for the masses. 

This mindset is highlighted by Rashi as Klal Yisrael gets ready for Matan Torah. Hashem (Shemos 19, 21) exhorts Moshe Rabbeinu to make sure that it is clear to the people that they may not ascend Har Sinai during Matan Torah. The phraseology the Torah uses bothers Rashi. The Torah says that if the nation mistakenly goes beyond the marked boundary, “וְנָפַ֥ל מִמֶּ֖נּוּ רָֽב – and many of it will fall.” Rashi notices that the Torah uses the singular term “ונפל” as opposed to the more appropriate “ונפלו”, which is the plural. This leads Rashi to comment, “כָּל מַה שֶּׁיִּפֹּל מֵהֶם, וַאֲפִלּוּ הוּא יְחִידִי, חָשׁוּב לְפָנַי רָב – any amount that falls, even if he is a singular individual, is considered before me like many.” Not only is each person significant, he is exponentially important. His one life is considered as equal in importance to many. No one falls through the cracks.

A prerequisite for Matan Torah is that Klal Yisrael internalizes this fact. Each individual is of extreme importance. Even if the one that ascended Har Sinai inappropriately would have been “high risk” or “with other complications,” G-d would have viewed his untimely end as a tragedy, as if many died.

There have been those that argued that if their age group is at low risk, they should continue with some parts of their routines. This argument has a basic flaw. It doesn’t demonstrate understanding of how a pandemic works. Pandemics need universal support to stop them. If people act in their own interests, they might be fine, but others will suffer. Pandemics need all hands on deck, even those that think that they themselves won’t be affected too severely.

Sometimes, we have been too quick to emphasize our own routines as superseding the lives of others. It is easier when they are marginalized by age, condition, or handicap. Yet, we have a responsibility to those individuals. Hashem considers them as significant as a multitude of people. Do we?

2) Rules matter

Over the weekend, Israel will conclude its fourth lockdown. This has been going on for six weeks and it has been a disappointment. For the most part, cases have not gone down significantly. Does it sound strange to you? A month and a half in lockdown and the number of cases stays the same? The answer is evident to anyone involved in society, but was highlighted in an interview with Dr. Nachman Ash, the former Coronavirus czar in Israel. As reported by the Jerusalem Post, Ash “argued that the reason the lockdown has not been working has less to do with the British mutation and more to do with the fact that the people are no longer inclined to listen to the rules.” Here it is again. We really can’t listen.

Restrictions could have served as a blinking red light: “There is a major pandemic going on. Experts are extraordinarily concerned!” It could have been a call to arms to people to do more than the rules required to protect themselves and the community. Instead people felt the urge, or need, to find loopholes to the rules. They missed the point. Even without enforcement, the rules should have been followed. They were meant for the benefit of the community. The impression that many had was that rules were another thing to be dodged or weaseled out of, instead of being kept in society’s own best interest.

Furthermore, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Even if few people break ranks and show that rules such as mask wearing and social distancing are meaningless to them, it increases the rate of infection for others. More importantly, it creates a general feeling of flippancy, even among those that want to be careful. Instead of rule keepers being respected, they feel ridiculed. When one creates a baseless conspiracy theory about precautions or about vaccines, it erodes the importance and seriousness of the situation and the means of curbing it. 

This is also highlighted by Rashi in the same pasuk in Parshas Yisro that discusses boundaries. The Torah commands, “הָעֵ֣ד בָּעָ֑ם פֶּן־יֶהֶרְס֤וּ אֶל ה׳ לִרְא֔וֹת – command the people, because they might break through (the barrier) to Hashem in order to see.” Rashi is perplexed by the choice of words – “יֶהֶרְס֤וּ.” It connotes “breaking through” or “destroying.” Why does the Torah use a word that implies such destructive imagery for someone who traverses the fence? Rashi explains, “כָּל הֲרִיסָה מַפְרֶדֶת אֲסִיפַת הַבִּנְיָן, אַף הַנִּפְרָדִין מִמַּצַּב אֲנָשִׁים הוֹרְסִים אֶת הַמַּצָּב – any destruction separates the foundation of the building, likewise those that separate from the stance of other people destroy the strength of the entire position.”

Have we dodged or circumvented restrictions for the sake of our own the interests? More significantly, how have we stood by without thinking that this could cause destruction to the entire stance? It did. 

3) Religious practice

Human life has extreme priority in Jewish thought. Halacha teaches us to override the most severe prohibitions in the interest of pikuach nefesh. In contrast, when global pikuach nefesh was at stake, we could not take the Torah’s approach to heart. When it comes to precautions for coronavirus, we were not required to violate a law. The most common situations demanded that people forgo customs and, perhaps in rare cases fulfillment (not violation of) of a mitzva derabanan, in the interest of stopping a pandemic.

We prioritized tefillah betzibur the way we want it to be, having simchos, clandestine Torah leaning, and yeshivos running as normal. If you could ask Hashem if that is what He wanted, do you really think He would answer in the affirmative? Is that the approach of Halacha?

Rashi again comments on this phenomenon. The Torah greatly emphasizes the importance of drawing clear boundaries around Har Sinai so that no one ascends during Matan Torah. Rashi (19, 21) explains the concern. Someone might have been stricken by religious passion to get closer to Hashem and mistakenly go up the mountain. If he would have listened to that internal voice and gone up, he would be punished with death. It would be a distortion of religious passion. Erroneous and punishable. Hashem understood that people are prone to that during Matan Torah and had to make sure that no one would make that mistake. Did we learn that lesson?

4) Selfishness

We have seen that there is a widespread disease in society. It has destroyed many more lives than any pandemic. The disease of selfishness. If one had to boil down behavior during this pandemic, it exudes a selfishness and acts of self interest. It is so prevalent in our society that it is almost hard to notice. We grow immune to it. 

When one acts in self interest, it is hard to see, understand, or even listen to another person’s perspective. There have been recent calls in our community for “shalom,” harmony, or understanding each other. Those are beautiful and worthwhile, as long as one is able to step out of his own self interest. True harmony and a real relationship – with one’s spouse, friend, or community – can only exist when one acts in the interest of others, not just oneself.

We live in a world guided by self interest. It fuels social media and society at large. Are we able to genuinely care about others, or at least act in their interest, too?

Unfortunately, the pandemic is far from over. The good news is that we still have time to change. As we approach the Shabbos of Matan Torah, can we rise to the challenges of becoming more thoughtful of others, society, and Halacha? Think about how you have fallen short. Can you improve? Hopefully you can, and as משנכנס אדר you will have many reasons to be מרבה בשמחה.