We have a tradition that what happens anywhere in the world bears relevance for Klal Yisrael. A landslide in Hiroshima, an earthquake in the Andes, a flood in Kashmir — these are not only disasters for the local inhabitants, but speak to us as well. (Yevamos 63a)
When someone who had returned from a trip to the Jewish community of South Africa during the 1920s came to visit the Chofetz Chaim, the elderly sage asked him, What is the situation of the indigenous native population in South Africa?
His visitor, who was aware of the Chofetz Chaim’s deep involvement with the serious problems and dangers facing the Jewish people, asked, “Why is the rebbi so concerned about this?” To which the Chofetz Chaim replied, we have to care about all human beings. “Secondly, it says that eventually the entire world will be filled with the knowledge of Hashem, which includes everyone, so shouldn’t I be concerned with their welfare?” (Jewish Observer, Kislev 5663)
But when we hear about the tragedies befalling others around the world, we are usually able to summon (at the most) some meager sentiment about the “poor fellows” — but not much more, and often less. Telecommunications makes the problem more difficult. In the Chofetz Chaim’s time, news reached Poland from far-off places like South Africa only irregularly, and that in itself was a newsworthy event.
Today, hardly a day goes by without full text and a plethora of images of terrible events from all over the globe informing us in heartbreaking detail of the hundreds or thousands who perished, and the tens and hundreds of thousands made homeless. Yet, our hearts do not break — not because we are unfeeling, but because the frequency of such things makes it impossible to react with feeling to every fresh disaster. Were we to do so, it would make our own lives unbearable. As Chazal say, a rachaman, one who is full of mercy for everyone and everything, has no life.
So, naturally, when we first read about the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, we took little interest. Even when it emerged as the most serious outbreak ever recorded, claiming over 3,400 lives since March of this year, we could not feel overly concerned or threatened. As long as we didn’t go to Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea, we need not worry about falling victim to the contagion.
However, in recent days it turned out that we didn’t have to go to Africa to be exposed to Ebola; Africa came to us.
As of Monday, the first person to develop Ebola in the United States, Thomas Eric Duncan, was in critical condition, struggling to survive in a Dallas hospital. The man became ill, showing symptoms of the deadly disease two weeks after arriving from Liberia.
In Nebraska, another hospital was preparing for the arrival of an Ebola patient from Liberia. A Nebraska Medical Center spokesman would only identify the patient as a male U.S. citizen expected on Monday. But the father of Ashoka Mukpo, a freelance NBC cameraman who contracted Ebola in Liberia, said that his son was going to Nebraska for treatment.
If Nebraska seems like a safe enough distance, half a continent away from major urban areas on the east and west coasts, the scene of federal disease-control agents in biohazard suits removing a suspected Ebola victim from a United Airlines jet that landed on Shabbos in Newark, New Jersey, might cause a nearby shudder — even if health officials did say later that they had ruled out Ebola in that case, and the 251 other passengers and 14 crew members were released from quarantine.
The spread of Ebola to the U.S. comes as a shock. Despite the most sophisticated medical and security system in the world, and although the spread of the disease in West Africa has been carefully monitored, Ebola has entered our borders.
Public health officials are working day and night to pinpoint the progress of the contagion and contain it. For reasons unknown, medical personnel at the Dallas hospital failed to clear Duncan for possible Ebola when he initially came to the emergency room, even though they had access to the fact that he had arrived from Liberia.
Mindless bureaucratic snarls compounded unexplained negligence. Prompt disposal of contaminated material — clothing, bed sheets, etc. — is vital to containing the spread of Ebola. Yet, a delay of several days was reported in cleaning out the apartment where Duncan had been staying.
Two federal agencies — the Transportation Department and the Department of Health and Human Services — have issued conflicting guidelines for disposal of the contaminated materials. As a result, the possibly deadly waste has been piling up.
Administration officials said they were drafting new guidelines to expedite the handling of the epidemic, but in the meantime, as Michael S. Rawlings, the mayor of Dallas, observed, “This has been a paperwork nightmare.”
During these days of tefillah and teshuvah, we cannot but reflect on the spiritual meaning of such events.
The technological advances of our era make us doubly vulnerable. Immediate reportage of disasters around the world inures us to them; and at the same time we cannot think ourselves safe from them, as the contagion can be carried to our own cities at jet speed.
It also reminds us that no matter how distant the suffering of others may be, it obligates us to feel empathy and compassion for all of Hashem’s creations.