COVID-19 brought the world together George Floyd's death tore it apart

Bottom line, despite superficial difference in the color of our skin, hair and eyes, we really are all part of one giant extended family and are remarkably similar to one another.

Demonstrators gather behind a fence during a protest against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Lafayette Park in front of the White House, in Washington, U.S., June 4, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/JIM BOURG)
Demonstrators gather behind a fence during a protest against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Lafayette Park in front of the White House, in Washington, U.S., June 4, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/JIM BOURG)
The famous 19th century British missionary and explorer David Livingstone once wrote, “It wasn’t the lions and tigers that got us, it was the gnats.” (He died of malaria in 1873 in what is today Zambia). The point he was making was very powerful: Sometimes, and often unexpectedly, it’s the little things that make the biggest difference.
This past winter humanity got a big dose of that lesson with the COVID-19 pandemic. The world was faced with something it hadn’t seen in 100 years. The last time this happened was between 1918 and 1920 when the Great Influenza, also known as Spanish Flu, struck.
That pandemic was far, far worse than COVID-19. An estimated 500 million were infected and between 50 million and possibly up to 100 million people may have died. In 1918, the world was deeply divided and fighting what was the first of the great conflicts of the 20th century: World War I. (Some historians believe that the virus actually ended the war prematurely, as the German Army lacked enough healthy troops to launch its final great offensive.)
COVID-19 was a very different experience. There was no world war and no taking sides. In many sci-fi movies – War of the Worlds, Independence Day, Battle: Los Angeles – nations put their differences aside and unite to fight off the existential threat of an alien invasion. But this winter the enemy came from within.
In the space of a few weeks, virtually every country on the planet was under attack. It took a microscopic virus to do it, but suddenly everything else was out of the news and the entire human race, with a lot of help from the Internet and the mainstream media, was all on the same page, focused on the same threat and working together to win the war against an unseen enemy that threatened the whole world.
This could well have been the silver lining in this terrible event – a tiny virus pushed the world into an awareness of our shared vulnerability and the need to work together for a common good. The enemy did not recognize borders and didn’t care about race or creed. It was the human race versus COVID-19.
The death of George Floyd changed everything.
LITERALLY OVERNIGHT difference was in the spotlight and difference was sowing division and disunity, especially in America, where the country was suddenly ripping itself apart – more divided than it has been for half a century. Black Lives Matter and “white privilege” were all over the Internet and mainstream media.
Science tells us that ALL human beings share 99.9% genetically identical characteristics. Between you and me and everyone else on the planet, there is .01% physiological difference. Anthropology teaches us that all Homo sapiens (the fancy scientific term for humans which in Latin means “wise man”) originated in the same place (Africa) and migrated over millennia to all corners of the planet.
The racial differences we see today: Caucasoid (white), Negroid (Black), Mongoloid (Oriental) etc. are all a by-product of a long period of separation and adaptation to different geographic areas and climates. Bottom line, despite superficial difference in the color of our skin, hair and eyes, we really are all part of one giant extended family and are remarkably similar to one another.
The origins of this understanding of common ancestry go way back before modern science. Some 3,700 years ago, in the Middle East, a man named Abraham brought a radically transformative concept into the world – one God – the infinite creator of the universe and the father of all humanity. The beginning narrative in the Bible, the story of Adam and Eve, makes a foundational point that all humanity shares common physical and spiritual origins and despite any differences in our appearance, there is a fundamental equality among all of us.
Abraham’s mission was not only to teach the world about one God but also to teach the world about one common destiny – a world living in harmony, united by universal, God – given values and principles. That, in a nutshell, is the Jewish, messianic vision for humanity.
It took thousands of years, but this concept of ethical monotheism transformed the vision and values of the world, and served as an ideological foundation for the political evolution of much of modern civilization as clearly stated in 1776 in the Declaration of Independence of the United States:
“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
In practice, it didn’t work out exactly as preached. The majority of the Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, were slave-owners, and its practical implementation has proven to be a long, hard, uphill struggle, but this statement enshrined the concept of equality as the fundamental principle of liberal democracy.
THE JEWISH people – the nation tasked with the unique responsibility of teaching the world these concepts – have also not always found it easy to practice what they preached. Fractiousness and divisiveness have plagued the Jewish people for millennia.
We all know the joke about a Jew stranded on a desert island who builds two synagogues – one he prays in and one he refuses to enter. We have spent way too much time focusing on what divides us: Reform. Conservative, Orthodox, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, etc. and not enough on what unites us. We must always remember that Jew-haters make no such distinctions. In Auschwitz there was only one line and one final destination for all of us.
Maybe all the recent events that have so shaken up our world should serve as a warning and wake-up call that we all need to make a paradigm shift in how we look at ourselves and others. Rather than focus on difference, which only leads to divisiveness, we must start to focus on how much we all share and how much we all have in common. Maybe the Jewish people who first introduced these concepts to the human race should make the first move.
Perhaps it is fitting to close with the words of the great Rabbi Akiva in Ethics of the Fathers. They are as relevant today as when they were first written almost 2,000 years ago:
“Beloved is man for he was created in the image [of God]. Especially beloved is he for it was made known to him that he had been created in the image [of God], as it is said: ‘For in the image of God He made man’ (Genesis 9:6). Beloved are Israel in that they were called God’s children... as it is said: ‘You are children of the Lord your God’ (Deuteronomy 14:1). Beloved are Israel in that a precious vessel was given to them [the Torah]. Especially beloved are they for it was made known to them that they were given a precious vessel through which the world was created, as it is said: ‘For I give you good instruction; forsake not my Torah’” (Proverbs 4:2).
The writer is a rabbi, historian, author and tour guide. He lives in Jerusalem, where he teaches at Aish HaTorah in the Old City. His classes and writings can be accessed on kenspiro.com.