Swine Flu: Getting Us Back to the Basics

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Surgical Mask
13 May 2009

It started with a young boy in Mexico who came down with an unusual and virulent flu. It’s become a global scare that is nearly pandemic. Swine flu, or Influenza A H1N1 as the experts call it, is a new strain of influenza virus that is sweeping across the world, bringing fear, cautionary measure, and medical debate in its wake. On April 29, 2009, the World Health Organization raised the alert level to five out of a possible six, in response to the rapidly spreading virus. Schools in many locations closed after students were suspected of having the virus. In some countries, vacationers returning from Mexico are being tested to see if they’re running a fever, and those that are have been hospitalized and quarantined. There’s been a run on Tamiflu, an antiviral drug that is effective on swine flu if administered shortly after the onset of the illness. Governments are discussing the feasibility of developing and stockpiling enough vaccine to protect all their citizens in case the illness spreads.

But all the frenetic action has not stopped the disease from claiming dozens, perhaps hundreds, of lives. And that leads us to deep feelings of unease. It’s frightening to think that despite our slew of antibiotics and miracle drugs, our sophisticated medical equipment and myriad life-saving machines, our state of the art hospitals and well-trained doctors, we can so easily be stymied by a new virus.

And once we start thinking along those lines, swine flu is but the tip of the iceberg. There are untreatable forms of cancer. There are superbugs that respond to no medication we’ve developed. There are all sorts of unpronounceable forms of bacteria floating in the air surrounding us, ready to pounce as soon as our immune system develops the slightest susceptibility. The more one thinks about it, the more hypochondria seems sensible. But that’s not meant to be the final destination of a scare like swine flu.

Unlike those who look at illness as a haphazard stroke of misfortune, a bad draw when selecting the cards of life, Jews believe that illness, like every other event in our lives, is carefully orchestrated by the ultimate Scriptwriter. The midrash tells us that God put illness in the world to bring us to do teshuvah. Illness is God’s way of waking us up and bringing us closer to Him. When we realize our fallibility and vulnerability, we turn to our Maker and ask for a second chance.

For many centuries the equation illness = prayer and teshuvah = closeness to God was blatantly clear. Then we started tripping over our sophistication. God gave us the blessings of modern medicines. After thousands of years of the most primitive health care, we suddenly could cure a host of previously incurable diseases. We could explore the innermost parts of our bodies and do surgery on the most delicate of organs. We could enjoy the prospect of longer, more active lives; the average lifespan nearly doubled in the past century.

As we settled into this wonderful new reality, our responses to poor health changed. While our grandmothers quickly reached for a Tehillim when a child was burning with fever, we rummage through out medicine cabinets. While our grandfathers fasted and pleaded for reprieve when their wives lay deathly ill, we seek out yet another expert. And we’re doing the right thing – partially.

Once God gave us the blessings of advanced medical care, we not only can use it – we must use it, and perpetuate it. We are told to safeguard our health, and we should use any and every means we have to accomplish this task. However, we can’t forget the other half of reality. We must remember what our ancestors knew in the deepest place in their hearts – that life and death are entirely in God’s Hands. While we go from doctor to doctor, try medicine after medicine, we must also take spiritual steps to hasten our recovery – turn to God and pray for good health, beg Him to allow the medicines and doctors to heal us, pledge to live life differently if we recover.

There’s a woman in Bnei Brak renowned for her charitable activities*. Schools send groups of girls to watch her in action and join in her holy work. This woman wasn’t always engaged in so much kindness; there was a time when her world was made up mainly of the prosaic tail-chasing many of us are familiar with. Then, she got deathly ill. The doctors told her there was nothing left for them to do; her days were numbered. She looked upwards and said, “God, of what use am I to you once I die? I can no longer perform mitzvot in the World to Come. Heal me, and I will devote my life to doing for others.” He did. And she did.

God is waiting for us to turn to Him. And we need not wait until the doctors despair. Prayer shouldn’t be what we do when there’s nothing better to do. It should be what we do because there is nothing better to do.

There’s been a string of scares in recent years – Swine flu, avian flu, SARS. These scares can make us feel that the world is a very unsafe place. Or, they can bring us back to the ultimate safe place – the Hands of our loving Fathers.

*The story of the ill woman appears in Aleinu L’shabeach by R’ Yitzchak Zilberstein.

Bassi Gruen is a licensed social worker, a professional writer, and the Editorial Director of Targum Press. She’s published hundreds of articles in numerous Jewish publications and is the author of A Mother’s Musings, a collection of articles taking an honest look at the challenges and joys of motherhood. She lives with her husband, her children, and her dreams in Beitar Illit.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.