Tuesday, Jun 18, 2024

Are We Really All Typhoid Mary?

There are currently two factions amongst rabbonim. One group is adamant that it is too early to allow minyanim, even on porches or backyards. The other says enough is enough. Beaches are opening, churches are beginning services, stores are beginning to function. Why can’t we daven with a minyan, at least outdoors?

To be sure, each side makes a crucial point. There is nothing more important than saving a human life. If there is even a single chance that opening too soon will endanger life, it is too much of a risk. The other side, with equal vehemence and eloquence, cries that we are losing our youth and many others, not to Covid-19, but to religious apathy and neglect. I could make the case for each one because, in a tragedy, there are often no right answers, only the best or worst of two evils. This is not the time or place to take this stand or articulate a preference for either view. We must just daven for clarity and a resolution to this enigma before too much more damage is done chas veshalom.

However, there is a point that can perhaps be universally made, where we can all agree to learn something from the current situation and the history of pandemics.

I just read an article called “We’re all Typhoid Mary Now” (Newsday, May 17, 2020, page 118). It is based upon a book by Judith Walzer Leavitt, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin. She tells the sad but poignant story of Mary Mallon, an Irish immigrant in her thirties, who became infamously known as Typhoid Mary in 1906. A cook by profession and trade, she was arrested for spreading typhoid fever to the family for whom she cooked, a banker named Charles Henry Warren. She was placed in an isolation cottage in a hospital located on an island off the East River. Later, when she was suspected of spreading the disease again, she was arrested once more, this time ordered back to what was now called North Brother Island (near Riker’s Island), where she lived out the rest of her life. Ironically, Miss Mallon was asymptomatic to the end “and never accepted that she could pass the disease onto others.”

Although rabbonim have not generally been giving drashos, numerous Torah personalities have attempted to derive lessons and mussar from the situation the world has entered into since this past Purim. The saga of Typhoid Mary has brought about the professional conclusion that “we have to get away from the notion that those who are sick are somehow deserving of being sick, that some people are more expendable than others.” The good professor concludes that most of us have now felt what Mary went through when she “could not see [her] family and not be able to talk to people you know.”

What does the Torah teach us about the place of the individual in society and the mutual responsibility of yochid and tzibbur?

I will begin with a quote from my good friend, Rabbi Eytan Kobre (Mishpacha, May 13, 2020, page 19). Since I, thank G-d, don’t know who he was quoting, I can write quite objectively. He references a “conservative writer (and Orthodox Jew)” who wrote that “You can call me a grandma killer. I’m not sacrificing my home, food on the table, all of our docs and dentists, every form of pleasure (museums, zoos, restaurants), all my kids’ teachers, in order to make other people comfortable. If you want to stay locked down, do. I’m not.” Rabbi Kobre states that this manifesto “set off a national firestorm on social media.”

Again, boruch Hashem, I don’t know where to find social media, but I must comment that this is exactly the opposite of the lesson I believe we should be learning and teaching our children. Although we are unfortunately still far from our shuls, botei medrash and normal tefillah b’tzibbur, one thing we can and must do is be a part of the tzibbur, feel the pain of others, and daven for their refuos and yeshuos. It is one thing not to be able to daven with others; it is quite another to forget about them or not even care about their travails.

Rav Chaim Shmulevitz zt”l (Sichos Mussar, Maamar 72) points out that sometimes even the greatest individuals suffer with the greater Klal Yisroel, whether or not they are more deserving than the rest. It is both foolish and cruel to attempt to disassociate oneself from the tzibbur. He quotes the Medrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 81:1) that “Hashem saw that there would be a decree that everyone above the age of twenty would perish in the Wilderness.” He therefore made sure that the Levi’im were counted separately so that they would not be included in the death sentence, since “they are mine, having not erred in the matter of the Golden Calf.”

We see, concludes Rav Shmulevitz, that when there is a decree against the greater nation, even “the righteousness of the righteous person shall not rescue him…” (33:12). Rav Shmulevitz goes on to cite the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh (Bamidbar 14:38) that the Torah informs us that of all the meraglim, only Yehoshua and Calev remained alive.

The Ohr Hachaim asks: Isn’t it obvious that they would live, since the Torah only condemns those who brought back the evil tidings?

His answer is that ironically they were spared because we’re not with the rest of Klal Yisroel, who were included in the decree of death. They were saved precisely because they were in a different place, in Eretz Yisroel. In other words, despite being great tzaddikim and totally innocent of the sin of the meraglim, they would have met the same fate as the rest of the nation.

Rav Shmulevitz reminds us that being part of the tzibbur has its rewards and positive redemptive qualities as well. When the novi Elisha offers the Shunamite woman to “put in a good word for her with the King,” meaning Hashem, since it was Rosh Hashanah, she demurs and turns down the incredible offer. She responds, “I dwell among my people” (Melachim II 4:13).

The Zohar explains that the noble Woman of Shunam was willing to forgo the personal interceding of the prophet as long as she would be judged with the rest of Klal Yisroel.

The most famous parable on this subject is offered by the Medrash (Vayikra Rabbah 4:6): “A man was drilling a hole on the floor of his stateroom in a large ship. When the people came to complain, he answered, ‘What do you care? I am only drilling under my own feet.’ However his fellow travelers answered, ‘No, we are all in this together and you will drown us all.’”

Clearly, Chazal were teaching us that we all share in each other’s actions, for better or worse, for destroying or saving lives.

An even more famous exposition in the writings of Rav Chaim Shmulevitz of the responsibility and power of each individual in the tzibbur is the saga of the agunah. Rav Chaim was in a miklat, an air-raid shelter during the Six Day War, when the deafening sound of enemy missiles were shattering the air. A woman whose husband had abandoned her with several small children was whispering a personal prayer to Hashem. “Master of the Universe,” she began, “I forgive my husband for all the harm he has done to me. I willingly accept all the humiliation and poverty my children and I have suffered. Please, You, too, forgive all the people huddled here in this miklat for all their sins, just as I have forgiven my husband with a full heart.” Rav Chaim stated definitively that “if we, who were with her in the shelter, survived, it is in the merit of that long-suffering agunah who overruled her own feelings and emotions. She was able to bring about a neis not only for herself, but for an entire tzibbur of Jews in distress.”

Perhaps – just perhaps – one aspect of our losing the ability to daven b’tzibbur for so long is that we must remember what it means to be part of a tzibbur. We didn’t need large funerals to remember that we lost tzaddikim such as the Novominsker Rebbe zt”l. We didn’t need actual minyanim to remember that people are suffering in hospitals and nursing homes. We didn’t need shuls to tell us that there are other Jews who are worse off than we are. It is in our minds, souls and hearts that we have to suffer with them, not in physical crowds or shuls. For someone to be able to say, “I’m not sacrificing,” is not only a travesty, it is the saddest statement one can imagine in this time when we should be nosei b’ohl, sharing everyone’s burden as much as possible. In fact, those who are conducting minyanim must not forget that this is not a time of hefkeirus. To my knowledge, no respected rov or posek has allowed Kiddushim after permitted minyanim or social gatherings. Everyone must undertake certain deprivations, at the very least to be a part of the tzibbur that we all cherish and whose zechusim we hope to access at this difficult time.

Yes, in a certain way, we are all Typhoid Mary, but only if we care about ourselves and not others. We are Typhoid Mary only if we go beyond the mandate given to us by our rabbonim and poskim. Mary was innocent because no one at the time understood asymptomatic spreading of disease. We now know, however, that on the spiritual as well as physical level, one person can affect all of society. We have all heard the recent analogies to the metzora and the need for him to be alone. But at the moment, the even more important lesson is to know and believe deep in our heart that we are in this together. The only Typhoid Maries are those who would tear us apart. Let us try to remain strong and together just a bit longer. Then, hopefully, we will soon be able to lift our voices loud and in unison, in the spirit of k’ish echad and b’lev echad as we did at Har Sinai.



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