Sunday, October 26, 2014

What Noah can teach us about our response to Ebola

This is the drash that I shared at Congregation B'nai Shalom this past Shabbat, parsha Noah.

While the story of Noah and the ark is often told as a charming children’s story, it is, of course, nothing of the sort. The idea that all life on our planet would be wiped out is quite horrifying. And, while Noah has our gratitude for ensuring the survival of the species and enabling life to begin again, later generations of commentators on our biblical story point out his flaws. He might have been ‘righteous in his generation’ but, they tell us, he would not have been considered so in future generations. Why not? Because, unlike Abraham, who argued with God for the survival of the evil cities of Sodom and Gemorrah if only 10 righteous people could be found living there, Noah dutifully saved his family and the animals he was instructed to collect, but did nothing to try and save the rest of humanity.

We know definitively that the story of Noah that we find in the Torah is a flood story but is not the flood story. It shares many similarities with other ancient myths about floods, including ones that predate the likely approximate timeframe of ours. So we’re not reading history here. Yet what our version introduces that is a variant on an older telling is a moral element.  The biblical telling emphasizes the destructive consequences of human immoral behavior. The rabbinic commentaries emphasize the morally deficient position of Noah who raises the drawbridge on the ark and closes his eyes to the rest of the world.

This past week I haven’t been able to stomach listening to US news channels for more than about 2 minutes at a time. Based on the wall-to-wall coverage, it would appear that the rest of the world has entirely disappeared. It might as well be underwater right now. We appear not to be able to see it at all. Instead, with highly charged, urgent voices,  news commentators seem to leading a nationwide panic attack that obsessively reviews every remote possibility that someone with the Ebola virus has appeared in our ark. Politicians are arguing that the drawbridge should be fully up, all entrance-ways sealed, so that we keep this pernicious disease out.

Where is the compassion for the awful suffering in parts of Africa? Where is the nationwide call for $10 per text, and all the other ways that international health organizations usually mobilize us to raise millions quickly so that we can provide equipment, expertise, and ensure that vaccinations work and are quickly produced to be made available abroad?

And, while the scale is serious and action does need to be taken in African countries that are most severely affected, when it comes to the US, where is our sense of proportion?  John Stewart got it right with his coverage earlier this month:

After a series of clips of politicians and commentators announcing that we should do ‘whatever it takes’ to seal up our borders and keep Ebola out, Stewart remarks: ‘Wow, what a difference in Africa-US travel policy 150 years makes!’ He then goes on to make the more serious point, through another series of clips that Heart Disease is the leading cause of death among Americans, killing 600,000 a year. And yet, when the government comes out with proposals to bring healthier eating to American citizens, control what is served to children in schools, and other forms of preventative care, many of the same voices tell us that the government shouldn’t be telling us what to eat or what we can do.  He points out that estimates are that between 7,000 and 17,000 lives a year could be saved if we expanded Medicaid so that more people had access to healthcare in our States. And 88 people die from gun violence every day. So clearly ‘the government should do whatever it takes to save American lives’, Stewart points out, seems to have more to do with things that might enter our country from other places, and we seem to be somewhat more laissez-faire when it comes to the large number of things that we could be doing each and every day to save American lives from causes that affect an exponentially larger number of citizens.
What can you or I do to make a difference? If we have the means, perhaps a donation to Medicin sans frontiers, who are putting medics into Ebola-affected communities in Africa to try and stem the spread of the disease and tend to the sick. Or via American Jewish World Service, who are directing funds to their partner organizations in Liberia who are trying to better educate people about how to limit the spread of the disease.

The Story of Noah is several thousand years old. 2000 years ago our early rabbis were pointing out that Noah could have done more to try and save others rather than only saving himself. Now it is 2014. Jewish tradition put morality at the heart of the Flood myth. There are many ways we can apply those moral values to life-threatening situations in today’s world. Creating panic over the airwaves is not one of them. So tune out the TV pundits and the politicians, and tune into some of the ways we can turn outward and give a helping hand to another human being who is drowning and need of our support.