What can we learn from Noah about how to respond to Ebola?

Let’s show love to nations that are already at risk and to nations that Ebola has yet to reach.

October 19, 2014 13:21

A UN convoy of soldiers passes a screen displaying a message on Ebola on a street in Abidjan.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Have you ever received a backhanded compliment? The kind that acknowledges your achievement while smoothly sliding in a zinger? A particularly good zinger comes to mind when I think of Candidate Barack Obama responding to a wailing Hillary Clinton in a 2007 Democratic Primary Candidate debate. Clinton complained that voters were flocking to Obama because of his popularity while ignoring her record on the substantive issues. To which Obama replied, “Well Hillary, you’re likable enough…"

Enough, but not over the top, right? Play nice to Hillary, voters, was his message, but remember who the real candidate is.
G-d appears to be playing a similar game with Noah. Introducing Noah to us, the Torah reports that Noah was “Perfectly righteous in his generation.” This sounds a little bit like the, “A legend in his time,” but not exactly. Many Talmudists understood this salutation as a backhanded compliment. In his own generation, among sinners that destroyed the world, Noah was considered righteous, but among decent morally upright people, Noah wouldn’t have been seen as righteous at all.

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Compared to Abraham for example, Noah was almost a degenerate. What was Noah’s shortfall? He failed to pray and agitate on behalf of his generation. G-d informed Noah that the world would be destroyed and only his family would survive. Noah, accepted the news and built an ark. There is no mention that Noah prayed on behalf of his generation or even sought to inspire them to repentance. He accepted the news sanguinely and proceeded to save his family.

Contrast that with Abraham, who, when told of the impending destruction to the city of Sodom, besieged G-d in prayer on behalf of a sinful people. Compared to his own generation, Noah, was righteous, but compared to Abraham, Noah was a selfish and uncaring man.

In his defense, Noah didn’t sit around doing nothing. Noah deliberately built the ark in a public place so that passerby would ask what he was building. When asked, Noah would set down his building tools and patiently explain what he was about. He told them that G-d would destroy the world because of their sins and encouraged them to repent.

But he didn’t do all that he could. He never appealed to G-d for clemency and never went out of his way to inspire his generation. He delivered his message and moved on. If it was accepted, fine. If not, that too was fine with him. He and his family were going to survive either way. For this, Noah is awarded a backhanded compliment.

Right now, a terrible disease called Ebola ravages West African countries. Several weeks ago, Ebola arrived to American shores. This is a serious disease and if not contained, spreads rapidly. Officials are scurrying to treat these patients and to quarantine everyone that came in contact with them. For now, it appears that containment efforts are marginally successful, yet controversy has flared.

Many wonder why flights to the United States from Ebola riddled countries have not been banned. The first person to be identified with Ebola in the United States had recently arrived from Liberia. Had flights been banned, Ebola would not have been in America today.

Opponents of banning the flights argue that such bans would hamper international efforts to stamp out the epidemic in West Africa. These arguments are cogent. We cannot close our borders to the problem and pretend to have no responsibility toward others. We can’t build a protective ark for our nation and sit idly by while others nations are assailed by the epidemic. We cannot be like Noah, who was content to save his family. We must be like Abraham, who refused to sit idly by.

Further, it is not even enough to make a token effort to assist in the fight. Noah made a token effort and for this reason was criticized. Every nation must take this threat seriously. Not only because Ebola can cross their borders and affect their citizens, but because fellow humans are at risk.

We must send significant aid to combat the spread of Ebola. The aid must come in the form of medical aid, trained medical personnel and all the medical assistance we can muster. The aid must also come in the form of economic relief for the countries beleaguered by this fight as well as staples and supplies that are in short supply in these countries. In short, we must do all we can. A token effort is insufficient.

The big question is, must we also open our borders? For this we take another look at Noah.

For all the criticism leveled against Noah, he was never criticized for sealing the ark. When he and his family entered the ark, hordes of people stood by begging to be allowed in and threatening to bar him from entering if he didn’t allow them in. Noah, could have stood at the ark’s entrance and refused to enter unless G-d would allow everyone in. Noah never did that and was never criticized for it.

The message is clear. Noah didn’t do or care enough to save others and for that he was condemned. But Noah did everything he could to save his family, and for this he was commended. Helping others does not extend to destroying one’s own family. While survivor’s guilt often sets in when one survives where others didn’t, it is certainly wrong to imperil our own life to avoid feeling guilty.

The aid and assistance to Ebola ravaged countries must go on unimpeded. Bans on commercial flights must not affect that. If it costs developed countries a great deal to maintain a steady flow of military or private transports countries to facilitate such aid, it will be money well spent. If we can spend billions on our militaries in war, we can spend billions on enabling our military to fight Ebola.

Of course each flight will need to be carefully screened before it enters non infected countries and proper measures will need to be taken while they are in infected countries, but this will be much more manageable than screening hundreds of commercial passengers that enter the country daily.

It is true that by closing off one avenue, complications open up in other avenues and that the determined traveler will find a way around any ban. It is also true that there are other means by which Ebola can travel and a ban alone cannot save a country, but just because the idea isn’t fail-safe, doesn’t mean it is without merit. By banning the flights, the primary entry port for Ebola will be sealed.

Let us take a dual approach to Ebola. Let’s fight it with all our resources where it is prevalent and let’s bring all our resources to bear against allowing it into non infected countries. Let us show love to nations that are already at risk and to nations that Ebola has yet to reach.

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a respected writer, scholar and speaker, is the spiritual leader of Beth Tefilah congregation in London, Ontario. He is the author of Reaching for God: A Jewish Book on Self Help, and his new book, Mission Possible: Living With Higher Purpose will be released this spring and can be pre-ordered by emailing [email protected] 

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