toThe whole world is suffering through this pandemic and the way it has been mismanaged by most governments as they have had to reverse themselves more often than a car approaching a series of cliffs. The suffering of the people who died, the failure to possibly adequately consider the full range of available remedies, and the suffering of all the people impacted by these horrible deaths seem virtually unprecedented, until people who studied the Daf Yomi reached Daf 21a of the tractate of Taanit in the Talmud less than a week before this paper went to press, and went through some of the details of the life of the famous Nachum Ish Gam Zu.
Nachum Ish Gam Zu achieved immortality for saying “This too is for the good.” But it would seem that much of his life was endured in perpetual suffering. Even the COVID sufferers who endured life connected to ventilators endured it for no more than a few months. Nachum Ish Gam Zu lost his vision, his arms and his legs and was covered with boils, and yet his motto remained “this too is for the good.” It is safe to say that nobody in our generation—or anyone else in any other generation—has/had such high standards that they would have prayed for such a series of punishment for the “sin” of not feeding a hungry person fast enough even though Nachum immediately dismounted to feed the hungry person but realized in retrospect, after the person died from hunger at his feet, that Nachum should have given food to the poor person before dismounting!
It is not for us to judge the pain of the people who suffered and died from COVID, and the pain of those who have survived, so far, but who continue to suffer by extension as a result of the traumatic, familial, social and financial effects of these terrible tragedies. But we can all learn a lesson from the person who gained immortality by praying to be punished in this world for his “sin” (which by most people’s standards was an attempted good deed) rather than in the World to Come.
Many of those of us who have been spared a direct hit by the pandemic—or even severe indirect hits—still bemoan our fates as we wear our masks and worry about our futures. Most of us can’t mask our pain at not being able to live “normal” lives again and celebrate our rites of passage (such as weddings and funerals) and holidays the way we could in the past and look forward to doing again in the future.
But considering the fate of so many of the victims of the pandemic and the experience of Nachum Ish Gam Zu, perhaps it is worth taking stock of the good that continues to shine through for many if not most of us even in this continuing and recurring era of the pandemic.
Many of us have more time with our immediate family; those of us who work remotely, study remotely, and socialize remotely have more time than ever before to do good deeds, to pray, to study, to help people; we save the expenses associated with travel, social events and impressing people in person; we have learned how to do more things on the internet; we can attend more rites of passage than ever before and our eyes can finally “dance at two weddings” thanks to the internet, which our feet could never do before (or cry at two funerals, God forbid, as the case may be); we can see more people up close at Zoom meetings, in many cases, than we could in person; without casual conversations in person we can participate in less gossip than ever before; knowing how our speech and writings over the internet can be monitored and held against us, some of us are less likely to insult each other and whole groups of people than ever before; we are building up our immune systems with more intensity than ever before, taking more nutrients and pills than ever before; by eating more home-cooked meals and less restaurant food and packaged goods we are improving our health by eating less hidden fats, sugars, chemicals, preservatives and genetically engineered foods; masks and less personal contact than before protect us from communicable diseases other than COVID as well; we have more time for introspection, meditation and writing articles such as this one.
The same Daf Yomi on the same Nachum Ish Gam Zu teaches us another lesson, though the comparison is not as strong, and this one is too late and should really have been read by our country’s political and military leaders. As if Nachum Ish Gam Zu didn’t have enough problems, he also lived in a dilapidated house. As the house seemed about to collapse, his students wanted to take him out. Despite all the pain and suffering he was enduring, and the pitiful figure he must have made, he still was able to recognize his self worth in the eyes of God, and his faith in God was undiminished, so he insisted that the furniture and utensils in the house should be removed first, and that he would be carried out last, since he was confident that God would not allow the house to collapse on his head. Sure enough, the furniture and utensils were removed first, at his request; he was removed last, and the house collapsed shortly thereafter. If only our political and military leaders had read this page of the Talmud before they evacuated Afghanistan, pulling out the troops from the military bases first and leaving the billions of dollars of military equipment there last, as gifts to our enemies, to be used, God forbid, against the United States and its allies. Equipment first; military personnel last. Nachman Ish Gam Zu was the most helpless person imaginable; the American military was the most powerful in the world; but Nachum Ish Gam Zu was spared with everything that was in his house, which then collapsed. The American military made the most counterproductive evacuation in history, leaving their military bases intact, and an untold number of innocent unarmed American civilians at the mercy of their enemies, now armed to the teeth as never before with American weapons left behind and vehicles to transport them.
Of course the situations are quite different. Nachum Ish Gam Zu was able to rely on Heavenly intervention, was inhumanly idealistic and held himself to the highest standards possible. Very few people would say the same about our current politicians and generals, regardless of party affiliation.
We now face more variants of COVID than ever before, and the fear of more restrictions on our lives than ever before. May we all have the positivity, the faith, the optimism, the peace of mind and the common sense of Nachman Ish Gam Zu to guide us and our leaders.
Rabbi Reichel has written, edited or supplemented various books, most notably about rabbis and community leaders in his family. But one of his most enduring memories is hearing that his grandmother, whom he remembers as always being in a wheelchair, consistently said that her favorite English song was “Count your blessings.”