Three years ago, the possibility of a global pandemic took up about as much headspace for most people as the possibility of a global conflict: technically possible, but not really a “thing” in this millennium. But as it turns out, history repeats itself. And now, people around the world are focusing on how to prevent the next pandemic.
Today is a Jewish festival known as Lag B’Omer. It’s a day celebrated because it was the day on which an epidemic—which had claimed the lives of 24,000 Jewish scholars in ancient Israel—finally came to a close. It is celebrated around the world each year with outings, bonfires, music and song.
There’s a lesson in the ancient epidemic that we should all take to heart. Those scholars died, we are taught, “because they did not act with respect towards one another.” Each felt that their own understanding of Jewish teachings was absolutely correct, and they could not respect anyone whose worldview differed from theirs. Their disunity resulted in tragedy.
It sounds eerily similar to the challenges we have faced as a global community throughout the pandemic.
Confronted with a virus that does not care about the religion, nationality or political views of its victims, our response was in many instances fragmented and disunited. Deep rifts grew deeper, and former neighbors and friends grew to distrust one another. Disunity may not have caused the pandemic, but it certainly wasn’t helpful in solving it.
We are strongest when we are united; when we realize that we may disagree with others—even passionately—and still care for them as human beings. We can respect those who have a point of view that differs from our own not because we agree, but out of the recognition that we are all creations of G-d.
One of the highlights of my week is welcoming guests to join our Friday night Shabbat dinner. Often there will be a kaleidoscope of viewpoints around the table; people who passionately think, believe and live differently from each other. But that doesn’t stop us from respecting one another, and respecting everyone’s opinions—even when they’re fundamentally different.
We may not be able to prevent the next pandemic, but we must unite to respond to it. This festival reminds us that our respect for one another cannot depend upon whether they agree with us. It needs to transcend the divisions that faith, politics and nationalities create.
And the next time the world faces a global crisis, our response must be to unite; to look out for each other; to rise beyond tribal rivalry and partisanship and to work toward the greater good.
Rabbi Mendel Liberow is the director of Chabad South County Jewish Center in Morgan Hill, which offers Jewish education, outreach and social service programming for families and individuals of all ages, backgrounds and affiliations. For information, visit JewishMH.com.
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