A new chapter in the story of Ebola in the United States begins as another may be coming to an end. New York begins to deal with its first confirmed case even as those in Dallas with possible contact with Thomas Eric Duncan have been cleared from quarantine. We are unsure what will unfold in this country in the next days. What we do know is that the ravage of the disease at its West African epicenter is far from over and that after taking thousands of lives, the virus still rages hot, and human beings continue to suffer and die.
The immediate reaction to the disease has been shaped partly by the workings of scientific discovery and partly by the culture and politics of dealing with rampant fear. However, what will shape our deeper response to Ebola? How will we be affected by the existence of a killer that lacks rationale or ideology and yet continues to threaten all it can reach? What if any meaning can be derived from a modern day plague?
Two very different yet complementary sources come to mind as I think about these questions.
The first is the Torah portion of this week in our synagogues, Parashat Noach, the story of the flood. The second is the insightful novel, The Plague, written by French philosopher Albert Camus in 1948 in the shadow of the Nazi Holocaust. The Plague is a fictional chronicle of how an Algerian seaside town, Oran, copes with an outbreak of pestilence, borne by rats and fleas and eventually infecting scores of victims. While often read as an allegory for the virulence of the Nazi death machine, The Plague is clinical in its detail of the spread of an actual infection and evokes eerily the details of quarantines, disputed public policies, and, above all, the fear that travels faster and farther than the disease itself can be carried. At its heart, however, the book is not about the phenomenon of an epidemic, but about how human beings react after catastrophic events scrape away the protective layer that usually shields us, and leaves us facing death. The voice that emerges among the various accounts is one that can make no overarching sense of the plague or any “God” who would send it, other than to fight for life on behalf of humanity.
The Noah story is actually the opposite. The death that rains down in the form of the flood is, in the context of the story, for a reason — the evil and violence that had spread throughout creation has made G*d regret bringing life into the world. On the other hand, there is no reason given for why Noah is to be spared, other than the unexplained assertion that he has found favor as the “righteous among his generation.” Presented with such a cut and dried foretelling of the impending doom for all but his family and some animals, Noah says and does nothing to stop it.
There are Jewish sources that poignantly imagine him spending his time in the ark overwhelmed with the tasks of feeding the animals and praying fervently to be saved from the prison of the ark. Still, the Jewish tradition tends to take Noah to task for not doing more for his fellow humans.
In the progression of the Torah, Noah will give way to Abraham who seeks G*d and yet is able to argue with the “Judge of all Earth” on behalf of the innocent. It is Abraham who will teach that obedience to G*d must go hand in hand with responsibility to human beings.
Similarly, Camus concludes his non-theist novel with Dr. Rieux’s assertion that the world requires those who “while unable to be saints… refuse to bow down to pestilence, strive their utmost to be healers.”
And yet the logic of the flood persists and at times seems to force the choice: G*d or us? Is it really possible to find meaning in one without abandoning the other?
Ebola sharpens the question, especially because the fear of the disease discourages making any kind of contact let alone “striving to heal.” There are some extraordinary individuals who, whether like Abraham or Dr. Rieux, are inspired to put their lives on the line in the service of others. Most of us, however, find ourselves floating in the ark with Noah waiting for the floodwaters to subside.
Still, Noah can also teach us something about being human. Despite being surrounded and sheltered by G*d, Noah is on his own and helpless. Like Noah, enclosed in the walls of his ark, sometimes we find ourselves retreating inward, passively reacting to a world imposed on us.
Strikingly, Camus uses a similar image to mark a low point as his Dr. Rieux faces the death of a friend: This human form… was foundering under his eyes in the dark flood of the pestilence, and he could do nothing to avert the wreck. He could only stand, unavailing, on the shore, empty-handed and sick at heart, unarmed and helpless yet again under the onset of calamity.
To feel helpless or afraid in the face of a danger like Ebola is a natural reaction. Noah’s story tells us that that too can be an opening for G*d; neither a surrender to the void nor a rationalization for a plague, but a prayer from the depths that affirms the holiness of being human.