Covid-19 and the Fly

Of course we know that everything comes from Hashem. This column, along with many others, has attempted to derive lessons from the coronavirus and its horrific consequences. But Chazal also teach us to watch for the details. In this case, it is the possible return of Covid.

At this point, we are all hoping and praying that there will be no second wave. However, one fact is sadly clear. Many states and even entire countries that thought they had conquered the evil danger are suddenly dealing with a “spike,” a handy euphemism for “return.” The debate between those who have rid themselves of the mask and those who beg that it remain longer may be resolved by the new numbers in Arizona, Florida and, sadly, Eretz Yisroel. Our hopes for normal camping have been dashed and, despite winning a few legal battles, our Yomim Noraim may be quite irregular for 5781. What is the message?

I would suggest that this mageifah seems to carry all the characteristics of the yeitzer hara itself. Chazal (Brachos 61a) liken the yeitzer hara to a fly, and many meforshim (e.g., Kli Yokor, Bereishis 32:25) develop the metaphor extensively. One of the most prevalent analogies cited is that the fly seems to go away but inevitably returns time and again. The Rambam, in a letter to his son (Igros HaRambam, page 2), states categorically that “Paroh the king of Egypt is truly the yeitzer hara.”

Perhaps one of the many understandings of this profound statement might be that after each makkah and each succeeding proof of Paroh’s vulnerability, he seems to reinvent himself and returns. Every time doctors and scientists are certain they have it conquered, it once again rears its ugly head(s). Surely, this is a reminder that we, too, must redouble our efforts against our yeitzer hara. This is also a reminder that we each have our own personal evil inclination. Chazal often refer to this as yitzro (Sukkah 52a) and yitzri (Brachos 59b) in the most personal of terms. We see this very clearly in the multiple ways it manifests and presents. It can come with many symptoms or, dangerously, be totally asymptomatic. Some people ride it out at home in a few days; some have been suffering for months. Of course, while many have survived, some have tragically succumbed.

This personalization is the hallmark of the yeitzer hara. Rav Yaakov Edelstein, rov of Ramat Hasharon, used to tell a story about the Chazon Ish. A bochur who was battling his demons approached the great sage with a request. “Can the rov please give me a brocha to banish the yeitzer hara from me so that I will no longer have these tests?” The Chazon Ish answered instantly, “Are you such a fool? Do you want to die? Whoever is alive has a yeitzer hara; a person lives only to overcome its wiles. Only a corpse has no yeitzer hara, but the wise know how to deal with him.”

In other words, it is the yeitzer hara who keeps us in this world.

Not only is Covid a metaphor for the yeitzer hara, but how we are dealing with its consequences is what defines who we are. This does not, G-d forbid, reflect upon the many righteous people who passed away from the virus. There are, sadly, few open miracles in our times and the righteous are often the first to suffer (Bava Kama 59b). However, Hashem is certainly watching Klal Yisroel as a whole to see how we are dealing with this nisayon.

We mentioned that Covid can be asymptomatic. Not only can someone who seems totally healthy be afflicted with the virus, but he can actually be the worst of carriers. The New York Times (June 28, 2020, page 1) reported that as early as last January, German scientists were reporting that asymptomatic people could be spreading the virus. For some reason, even top infectious disease experts refused to believe the facts. Precious months and lives were tragically lost. The Times charges that “the two-month delay was a product of faulty scientific assumptions, academic rivalries and, perhaps most important, a reluctance to accept that containing the virus would take drastic measures.” Does this not sound like our reluctance to accept mussar, to believe someone chastising us, to listen to our messages, to change our ways? Perhaps most appropriately, the Covid yeitzer hara connection is most dramatic when we realize that we, too, are usually asymptomatic of sin. There are two aspects to this connection.

First of all, our aveiros these days are most like those of the second Bais Hamikdosh rather than like those of the first (see Mishnah Berurah 649, Dirshu note 4). Most of us do not commit any of the three cardinal sins. We are not murderers, we do not worship idols, and we generally lead moral lives. But sadly, we sometimes do speak lashon hara, are jealous of our neighbors and engage in sinas chinom, baseless hatred of our brethren. We don’t feel like we are sinning egregiously, so we are asymptomatic of iniquity and therefore tend to ignore the festering wound.

Secondly, since Hashem is an Erech Apayim and He delays punishment and does not react immediately to our transgressions, we become complacent and self-content (see Michtov M’Eliyohu 1:18). We are shocked when anything at all goes wrong, all the more so a worldwide mageifah. But it is actually the yeitzer hara lulling us into spiritual lethargy.

Chazal (Shabbos 105b) tell us that the yeitzer hara works quietly and subtly “Today he says do this, tomorrow do that, until eventually he tells us to commit idolatry.” This insidious process continues until he puts us on spiritual respirators, which can be more deadly than the disease itself. If neshimah – breathing – is life, then artificial breathing is a sign that something is terribly wrong (see Pachad Yitzchok, Shavuos, page 240).

Perhaps the tragic failure of putting Covid-19 patients on ventilators was a reflection of this absolute truth.

The Maharal (Nesivos Olam, Nesiv Ahavas Hashem 4) pithily teaches that “A person must seek to evict his yeitzer hara from within himself. Even if he is righteous and pious, he should not take this lightly, for this is extremely difficult.” In other words, if we aren’t even aware of the problem and take it lightly, we are, G-d forbid, doomed to failure.

The Alter of Kelm, Rav Simcha Zissel, refers to this catastrophic situation as “one of the most amazing phenomena of human nature” (Chochmah Umussar 1:121). He references the Gemara (Shabbos 31) which reveals that the wicked know very well that their actions are mortally dangerous, but they follow them nevertheless. We are painfully aware of the consequences of Covid, and have to endeavor to prevent its tentacles from spreading.

Rav Yeruchom Levovitz alerts us to another Covid/yeitzer hara connection. He reflects upon the shocking fact that some years after the treaty of Versailles was signed, the nations decided that their signatures were no longer binding, negating the entire efficacy of the document. As the great baal mussar and baal machshavah he was, Rav Yeruchom defines what really happened. “It was revealed to me,” he ominously writes (Daas Torah, Shemos 14:10) “that…there is no greater danger in the nature of man than to revisit decisions and commitments that have already been made long ago. This is the approach of the yeitzer hara. He knows that he cannot succeed in convincing a person to initiate a totally new approach to a problem. However, he can be successful to instill doubt in the wisdom and logic of ancient truths.”

Let us give Rav Dessler (Michtov M’Eliyohu 1:262) the last word. He advises us that “in the war against the yeitzer hara, we must fight with a great deal of cunning.” Referencing the incredible craftiness of the primordial serpent identified by Chazal as the embodiment of the yeitzer hara, he expounds upon how we must fight fire with fire. We, too, must be smart both about protecting ourselves from physical harm, even as we return to our yeshivos and shuls. Even more importantly, we must not be dragged into politics or arguments about the credibility of various scientists. Our gedolim have dealt with this before and know how to separate the wheat from the chaff, the truth from the lies. Perhaps the place to begin is by being honest with ourselves about who is whispering in our ear, our yeitzer tov who has our best interests at heart or our yeitzer hara who wishes to destroy us. May Hashem send us the siyata diShmaya to make the right crucial decisions.