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A Shark in the Water

07/17/2020 10:23:01 AM

Jul17

Recently I was listening to the podcast Unspooled where they are reviewing the top 100 movies of the AFI top 100 list. The episode I listened to last week was about the film Jaws. The host of the show drew a comparison between the fight between the sheriff and the mayor to what was going on today between people who are wearing masks and social distancing and those who are refusing to do so.

 

As a little catch up for those unfamiliar with the film, in a small beach town in Nantucket a woman is attacked by a great white shark. As a result, the sheriff wants to close the beaches down and the mayor wants to keep them open as it is tourist season. The mayor wins the argument, the beaches are opened, the shark attacks again and the sheriff goes hunting for the shark.

 

Who was right? In hindsight it is easy to say the sheriff. However, with no knowledge of what was going to happen, it is much harder to say who was right if we remove the potential loss of life as a legitimate reason to close the beaches. After all, any time one swims in the ocean there is the potential for loss of life. The mayor was concerned with loss of revenue and the odds of another shark attack were slim. The sheriff was not willing to take the risk of losing even one life.

 

So the question arises, do we stop our lives if there is a shark in the water? Again the answer is not so simple. I am reminded of a scene in the film The World According to Garp where an airplane crashes into a house the couple in the film are thinking of buying. Garp, played by Robin Williams, immediately says, “We’ll take it!” Garp reasons that the odds of another plane hitting the house are minuscule as it has already happened. Similarly, the odds of another shark attack in a place where there have been no shark attacks before is minuscule. In the end, the truth is it is hard, although not impossible, to say who was right and who was wrong. That is until we look at the Talmud.

 

The Talmud, from Ketubot 77b tells the following tale about how a group of Rabbis responded to dealing with people who were afflicted with a particularly nasty, communicable disease called ra’atan:

 

Rabbi Yoḥanan would announce: Be careful of the flies found on those afflicted with ra’atan, as they are carriers of the disease. Rabbi Zeira would not sit in a spot where the wind blew from the direction of someone afflicted with ra’atan. Rabbi Elazar would not enter the tent of one afflicted with ra’atan, and Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi would not eat eggs from an alley in which someone afflicted with ra’atan lived. Conversely, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi would attach himself to them and study Torah, saying as justification the verse: “The Torah is a loving hind and a graceful doe” (Proverbs 5:19). If it bestows grace on those who learn it, does it not protect them from illness?[1]

 

 

Rabbi Yoḥanan would announce: Be careful of the flies found on those afflicted with ra’atan, as they are carriers of the disease. Rabbi Zeira would not sit in a spot where the wind blew from the direction of someone afflicted with ra’atan. Rabbi Elazar would not enter the tent of one afflicted with ra’atan, and Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi would not eat eggs from an alley in which someone afflicted with ra’atan lived. Conversely, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi would attach himself to them and study Torah, saying as justification the verse: “The Torah is a loving hind and a graceful doe” (Proverbs 5:19). If it bestows grace on those who learn it, does it not protect them from illness?[1]

We can see that Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi was the only Rabbi who would expose himself to the dangers of those afflicted with ra’atan. What the story does not tell you, that the next few lines do, is that Rabbi Levi dies as a result of his behavior.

 

Problem solved:  the mayor was wrong and the sheriff was right. While this seems to be true, it might not be for the reasons you might think. The Talmud actually never tells us who is right and who is wrong. It might imply it but it never states it. As a matter of fact, it does not seem like the text has any issue with what Rabbi Levi did and even praises him for not ostracizing those afflicted.

 

There is a reason the mayor is wrong and Rabbi Levi is not although their behaviors may seem similar. Rabbi Levi goes out to teach Torah, not for himself but for others. The mayor, under the guise of caring for the townspeople, is really only concerned about his own political and financial well-being (this part is more pronounced in the book than the movie).

 

I want to be clear, I am not suggesting going to teach Torah to those afflicted with COVID-19. We must take proper precautions. That being said, those of us who do not take proper precautions because it bothers us or annoys us, need to seriously consider our motivations for not engaging in best practices for the safety of all.

 

There really is no reason to go swimming with a shark in the water. Forget about exposing others to danger; today we are talking about why you are exposing yourself to danger unnecessarily. I miss the water too and I want to swim in it desperately. However, the risk right now is too great. For your sake I hope you can refrain from going in the water. If you must go to the beach, to feed your family, pay your debts, that is necessary and definitely for others. Please though, take proper precautions and be careful. Eventually the sheriff catches the shark and all returns to normal. Eventually we will find a cure. There is a light at the end of the tunnel but this is a long tunnel and it will require patience from all of us.

Wed, August 12 2020 22 Av 5780