Shabbat Zachor and the Coronavirus

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Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the LORD your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!

Deuteronomy 25:17-19

Today is Shabbat Zachor, which means “remember.” It’s one of four Shabbats leading up to Passover that have names and special maftirs or haftorahs. 

The rabbis of the Talmud decided that the way to fulfill the commandment I just read – to remember what Amalek did – was to read just this passage on a special occasion, the Shabbat before Purim.

Why before Purim? Because legend says the bad guy in the Purim story, Haman, is a descendant of Amalek, so this is an appropriate time for that warning. Amalek has come to be a code word for anyone who wants to destroy the Jews – Hitler being the latest in a long line of Amaleks.

What did Amalek do that was so terrible? He attacked the stragglers, those who were weak and weary. The disadvantaged.

Today not only the Jews, but everyone is concerned about an attack on those who are weak and weary – only this attack doesn’t come from an evil person, it comes from a virus, the novel coronavirus which causes the disease known as coronavirus disease 19 or COVID-19.

The process we used to decide to continue with today’s festivities on the one hand, while cancelling Monday’s Purim Shpiel on the other hand, reflects an application of Jewish values in keeping with the halachic process, the way rabbis have made decisions for thousands of years. The real world is often messy, and there are often competing values that must be weighed in such circumstances.

Before talking about those Jewish values, let’s understand the “enemy,” this new coronavirus. There’s a lot of information out there, not all of it accurate. What I present here is my understanding of what the current scientific consensus says.

Every year tens of millions of people around the world get the plain old ordinary flu, and hundreds of thousands of people die from it. Why are we so worried about COVID-19 when it’s only killed a fraction of that number of people? Are we overreacting?

There are a couple of answers to that question. First of all, we want to keep the deaths a fraction of the hundreds of thousands who die from the flu. 

There are two factors that go into the danger posed by a new disease: how quickly does it spread, and how deadly is it? The common cold is very easily spread, but it’s not deadly. MERS is very deadly, but it doesn’t spread easily. And this is what makes the coronavirus so dangerous:

  • It’s twice as contagious as the flu. On average, someone with the flu infects 1.3 other people with the disease. Current estimates say someone with coronavirus disease infects 2-3 other people.
  • It’s at least ten times as deadly as the flu.  The flu has a mortality rate of .1%, meaning one person in a thousand who gets it will die. So far there are over 100,000 reported cases of coronavirus disease and 3,400 deaths – a 3.4% rate, or over 30 times deadlier than the flu. However, many people who have mild cases have not been identified, so while we’re pretty confident in the number of people who’ve died, the number of people infected is undoubtedly much higher. But experts believe the mortality rate is at least 1%, which is ten times deadlier than the flu.
  • Since it’s a brand-new disease, no one has acquired immunity from it.
  • There’s no vaccine yet

You can do the math – if the world did nothing, millions of people could die, and coronavirus could become a recurring problem, like the cold or the flu, potentially killing millions of people every year.

Avoiding millions of deaths directly from the disease is just one part of the equation. If millions get sick, many of them will need hospitalization to be saved, and that could easily overwhelm our health care facilities, not to mention putting millions of healthcare workers at risk. Additionally, the economic disruption from so many people out of work would be even greater than the disruption from the current travel bans and quarantines.

The preceding discussion reflects an important Jewish value: in matters of health especially, but  other matters as well, we rely on experts. 

The Shulhan Arukh, the 16th century compilation of halacha, of Jewish law, tells us:

The Torah gives permission to the physician to heal; moreover, this is a religious obligation and it is included in the obligation of saving a life. If he withholds his services, he is considered a shedder of blood. . . . However, one may not engage in healing unless he is an expert and there is none better qualified than him present, because if this is not the case, he is considered a shedder of blood.

Clearly, we are charged with relying on experts when it comes to our health.

When health authorities advise us to do things that seem to go against our religious commandments – for example, cancelling services – we follow the health authorities. This is illustrated by a responsa, a rabbinic legal opinion, written during WWII by the Committee of Army and Navy Religious Activities, a board of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis that addressed wartime halachic issues. In a discussion on holding a funeral and burying a body on Shabbat, they noted that in general this is prohibited. But they said:

This general prohibition applies to normal circumstances. Yet even in civilian life in case of an epidemic, if the government orders the immediate burial of someone who dies on Friday evening, then the burial must take place [even on Shabbat].

So how is it we decided to cancel the Purim Shpiel, but continue with today’s bat mitzvah? The specific health authority guidelines, the circumstances, and some additional Jewish values go into that decision.

The current guidelines from King County Public Health state:

  • If you can feasibly avoid bringing large groups of people together, consider postponing events and gatherings.

We cancelled the Purim Shpiel because it brings together a very large group – probably the second biggest crowd of the year after the High Holidays. It draws a very multi-generational crowd, from infants to the elderly. Multi-generational is a particular problem: kids are not at great danger themselves from the virus, but they are a very efficient vector for transmitting the disease, since they can be contagious with a very mild case or even no symptoms. A kid with few or no symptoms could easily infect one of our seniors, for whom coronavirus disease could be life-threatening. And kids are notoriously poor when it comes to hygiene.

Additionally, it’s possible to fulfill the obligation to hear the megillah being read remotely, and we have arranged to broadcast the megillah reading Monday night on Facebook Live on the Herzl-Ner Tamid Facebook Page.

A bat mitzvah, on the other hand, can’t be fulfilled remotely. It’s a statement, a statement Ayden is making about her commitment to take her place in the Jewish community, so by definition we need a community. She has studied for this particular Torah portion, so there’s no way to just push that off for a few weeks or months. Additionally, cancelling or postponing at the last minute would have incurred substantial financials costs, and there’s a principle in the Jewish tradition that God takes pity on our pockets, She doesn’t want to see us lose money unnecessarily.

Since the current health department guidelines allow for some discretion in which events to hold and which events to cancel, we decided that we could continue to have today’s celebration despite the concerns about the coronavirus, while taking the precautions that we can, such as not shaking hands, kissing, or hugging, changes in the procedures used for food service, etc.

Epidemics, alas, are not something new. I close with a prayer from the Talmud (Ketubot 8b):

רבון העולמים פדה והצל מלט והושע עמך ישראל מן הדבר ומן החרב ומן הביזה ומן השדפון ומן הירקון ומכל מיני פורעניות המתרגשות ובאות בעולם טרם נקרא ואתה תענה ברוך אתה עוצר המגפה:

Sovereign of the Universe! Deliver, save, and rescue, and Your people Israel from pestilence, from the sword, from our enemies, from crop failure, and from all other calamities that come to the world. Before we call, You answer. Praised are You, who stops the epidemic.

Amen

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