March 30, 2020

Fear May Kill Us, Too

I hate fear and I hate being afraid — but I’ve never seen fear such as that gripping the world and the United States in the wake of coronavirus.

Over the past 18 months, Jews have been gunned down in synagogues and hacked nearly to death with machetes at prayer halls. But in terms of fear, even anti-Semitism is no match for the coronavirus. Hurricanes and tornadoes have ripped apart cities and lives. Yet they, too, are no match for the coronavirus. The steady stream of never-ending news about illnesses — from cancer to obesity and diabetes — is enough to weaken any heart … but it cannot sow the panic of the coronavirus.

I grew up in Miami. If a hurricane was coming to make a direct hit on the city, there was the option, in general, of getting on a plane and flying out. Not so with the coronavirus. Wherever you turn, there it is. My wife’s family is from Sydney, Australia. It’s been just a few weeks since we feared whole cities might burn down in that country. A few months before that, it was California on fire.

But the coronavirus has set the whole world aflame.

For the past two years, we’ve seen the ravaging effects of #MeToo, with men exposed for horrible, abominable behavior. It has pushed the sexes apart as more and more women have expressed their disgust at men’s actions. The endless political partisanship has made everything in our country — and in so many others, from Israel to Britain to Brazil — seem nasty and disunited. However, that doesn’t lay a glove on the kind of social distancing the coronavirus has caused.

There has never been anything in our lifetime like the coronavirus. A global pandemic we have no medicine for is scaring the living daylights out of all of us.

So perhaps now is time to remind us all that fear can kill just as fast as any virus. Fear compromises our immunity and can lead to depression, which renders us inanimate and incapable of fully responding to real threats.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be fully cautious. However, there is a huge difference between caution and fear.

“There must be room for faith and optimism at this time.”

Fear is a hysterical reaction to an imagined threat while caution is a calculated response to a real danger. Fear freezes us in panic mode, immobilizing our senses; caution summons our vision to anticipate future events and evade real and present perils.

I do not dismiss there will be times when we pass caution and enter distress. Italy probably is at that point, and the United States — God forbid — may be there soon. But even distress is not fear, and this is more than just a play on words. Fear mostly is the product of the unknown, while distress is the product of painful circumstance that must be wisely addressed.

Being scared to death is not going to help us. It betrays a lack of faith and a rejection of providence. Not knowing the mind of God, I have no idea why God is allowing this scourge to plague humankind — but I know God loves life. He has given us an immune system by which to fight disease. He has endowed humanity with overwhelming wisdom that it has deployed in devising medical science that will lay siege to this virus and defeat it. The key is not to needlessly risk lives along the way. We must be hyper-vigilant and absolutely err on the side of caution.

Coronavirus is a real danger. The response should be comprehensive and leverage the full resources of every nation it has affected. We should heed our health professionals, embrace social distancing and cancel sporting events because they are, after all, mere games. We should cancel much more serious things — such as synagogue services, university classes and school sessions — because life, rather than worship, is what religion most promotes.

But for God’s sake, we also have to live with hope. We have to know that if we take the necessary precautions, the virus will pass, a vaccine will be produced, markets will rebound and life will flourish again.

There must be room for faith and optimism at this time. No, I don’t mean the faith of fools who would argue that belief in God is enough and the Creator will make everything OK. I mean the kind of faith that believes, as Moses commands in the book of Deuteronomy, that “God will bless you in all that you do.”

We must do. We must act. We must fight.

“A global pandemic we have no medicine for is scaring the living daylights out of all of us.”

Our medical professionals must find a vaccine. Our political leaders must ensure we have all the tests we need. All responsible citizens must socially distance so as not to spread the virus, especially to the most vulnerable among us. We should do all of this because we love life and want to protect souls, not because we fear illness and are panicked by death.

I believe fear will weaken rather than embolden our resolve. It will undermine our health. Depression will sap our energy and make us partially give up. But faith, optimism and hope will compel us to do the right thing during a time when exercising wise judgement is the difference between life and death.

The past few years have marginalized religion in favor of politics. We have become so obsessed with politics that the pundits and talking heads almost completely have replaced the rabbis, priests and pastors we otherwise would want to hear. Networks such as Fox News, CNN and MSNBC have seen their ratings rise as the public seems to hydrate an unquenchable thirst for political conflict and partisanship.

Ask yourself: Does anyone care now? Is anyone really following the Democratic primaries or watching Trump squaring off with Pelosi? Does anyone still remember the impeachment vote or how much press attention the Israeli election received relative to the coronavirus? Almost zilch.

Now is the time for religion to take its rightful place in a society that marginalized it in favor of politics. People need to hear a message of hope. They need to hear a message of purpose. They need to hear a message of redemption. And above all else, they need to hear a message of life.

These will come from the rabbis more than the politicians, the priests more than elected officials.

At this fragile time, religion, which has been nearly mute for the past three years, dare not let down humanity.


Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the international bestselling author of 33 books, including the upcoming “Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent Into Genocide Memory Hell.” Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.