As we have recently learned, the President contracted the coronavirus, requiring a stay at Walter Reed Medical Center. After he returned to the White House, he tweeted the following:
It was a callous tweet, to say “Don’t be afraid of Covid.” It was insensitive to the 210,000 Americans who have already died from the coronavirus, and their families and friends who are mourning their loss. And it was insensitive to all those currently infected who don’t have the same access to medical professionals, hospitals, and treatments (at no cost to him) that the President does. For we know that the coronavirus is a deadly disease with no known cure or vaccine, that can cause long-term effects even in those that recover.
So we should most definitely be afraid of the coronavirus.
We often speak of overcoming fear; we often refer to Rabbi Nachman’s famous dictum of course, “the world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to fear.” And indeed, fear can impede us. The fear of failure prevents us from taking risks, the fear of death prevents us from enjoying life. We are often governed by fears in ways that do not allow for healthy growth.
But fear can be a positive quality and good motivator as well, and we know it is a good survival reaction. As John Oliver pointed out recently (a favorite pundit of mine these days), it’s fear that prevents us from doing stupid things like running into traffic. Fear–of getting infected, of inadvertently infecting another–should be a motivating concern for us these days.
This week we are reading the closing chapters of the Book of Deuteronomy, ending our yearly reading cycle and ready to begin again from the start of Genesis in another week. In these closing chapters, Moses is giving his final charge to the Israelites, who are preparing to enter into the Promised Land.
Moses charges the Israelites saying “Be strong and courageous, be not in fear or in dread of them; for God marches with you.” (Deut. 31) The response to fear and dread is strength and courage. This doesn’t mean to not feel fear, but to approach it realistically. Courage is moving forward not without fear, but despite it.
We are being also asked during these times to be strong and courageous in the face of our fears. And we are getting clear guidance as to how to do that. Donning masks and keeping our distance is a way to be courageous in the face of fear. If we are able to maintain a healthy level of fear, then we will be realistic in assessing the dangers, and truly take to heart the advice of public health officials. Our strength comes from doing what we need to do in response.
We know that the President has been lax in following the guidance of his own public health officials. He seems to be governed by his own fears–of looking weak, of losing the election. These fears are not helpful.
This Shabbat we also mark Shemini Atzeret, the festival at the end of Sukkot, when we customarily offer a prayer for rain. One of the blessings of rain is that it is universal, and not exclusive to Jews, teaches the midrash:
Said Rabbi Tanḥum bar Ḥiyya: “Greater is the falling of rain than the giving of Torah, for the giving of Torah is a joy only for Israel, while the falling of rain is a joy for the whole world.”Midrash Tehilim
The coronavirus, like rain, affects everyone. So, yes, be afraid. Then we can do what we need to do.