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Viruses and Choices

Rosh Hashanah Eve 2011
Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel
Rodfei Zedek, Chicago

During the High Holy Days we ask God to remember us for life.  In every service of Rosh Hahanah and Yom Kippur, in the daytime Hodaah or Thanksgiving Blessing of the Amidah, we ask God to spare us from “all evil occurrences and every disease.”

The story is told about a man who had reached the ripe old age of 100 years.  On his birthday, reporters came to interview him.  One of them asked:  “To what do you attribute your old age?”  He replied:  “I breathe fresh air, take plenty of rest, and do not eat too much.  I live a careful life.”  The reporter said:  “I had an uncle who did all these things and he died when he was only fifty years old.”  The old man retorted:  “The trouble with your uncle was that he did not keep it up long enough!”

Of course, we know that we do not have full control, and are not even the controlling factor, in our health and longevity.  Thank God, people, by and large, are living longer.  But the more advanced medicine becomes, the more we seem to worry about sickness.

One of the blockbuster films playing in hundreds of theaters this very night is called Contagion, and it is about the outbreak of a terrible and seemingly uncontrollable epidemic.  At this time of year, we are warned to wear insect repellent in order not to contract the West Nile Virus, and we are alerted to the availability of the newest flu vaccine, the product of the best guesses of health experts.  So much of public health is a matter of statistics and prediction.

The New Year, Rosh Hashanah, begins a period of teshuvah or repentance that culminates in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  In the Torah, Yom Kippur is the day in which the Kohen Gadol or High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple and cleanse the altar with a ritual detergent, made up of a special offering, representing the desire of the people to begin anew.  The very fact that he emerged from the Holy of Holies intact was a comfort and encouragement to the repenting nation.

In biblical times, the priests or kohanim—in addition to being the spiritual leaders, to offering the daily sacrifices and prayers—were the physicians and public health officials in Israel.  In the chapters in Leviticus right before the description of the Yom Kippur service, we are told that if there was an outbreak of skin disease, the kohanim would bring the afflicted ones outside the camp until that disease passed, in a kind of quarantine.

In later times, the Talmudic Sages speculated about sickness.  Is there a moral cause?  Can we avoid illness by controlling our actions?  Do illness and recovery really depend on our deeds?  The Sages said that the leprosy handled by the kohanim can come about through idol worship, unchastity, bloodshed, profaning God’s name, robbery, affrontery, evil speech and greed.

But our Rabbis of 2,000 years ago were not naïve or self-righteous.  They understood that people who try to live decent and even holy lives are subject to illness, just as unethical and cruel people may never be ill a day in their lives.  The Sages had a general teaching: If evil befalls someone, let him examine his deeds.  If one still feels that the suffering is unjust, let him or her regard it as God’s loving chastisements.  The point is that whatever we face in life can be an opportunity to find God’s love and concern.  The goal of religion is not to make us feel guilty, but to inspire us to take every opportunity to examine and to understand our lives, and to bring God into our lives.

We are not God.  We do not know why there is illness and why it affects some and not others, let alone ourselves.  Illnesses of all kinds just seem to strike, and ours is not to judge why some contract illness and why others avoid it.

In fact, the Bible already understood this.  When Job is afflicted with illness, loss of loved ones and financial ruin, even though he sincerely tries to do what is good and right, his friends try to make him feel guilty and tell him that there is something that he must have done wrong.

Job cannot accept that some, that any, misdeed on his part was so heinous as to warrant such total disaster as punishment.  At the end of the book, God declares that Job must not take it personally, that there are certain things about the way this world is, that bring illness and tragedy and disaster upon innocent people, that these are the risks of the blessing of life.  The best we can do is to understand that the Creator is wise and purposeful and caring, but that we can’t fathom all the considerations that God had to weigh in making the world as we know it.

The bottom line is that we can’t judge illness, we certainly can’t celebrate it, but we must try to lead better lives no matter what happens to us and to those around us.  We can try to control illness and to prevent it.  In the Bible, medicine is regarded as the height of hochmah, or wisdom.  In addition to wisdom, we need comfort which we find in one another and in God, and we need the Divine guidance and direction that we find in the Torah.

For thousands of years, we Jews have prepared ourselves to face and to overcome illness and trouble with such teachings, with such Torah.  It is also the way that we have dealt with our personal demons, especially at this time of the year, immersing ourselves in teshuvah (repentance), tefilah (prayer), and zedakah (righteous deeds), to face the dangers in the world and in ourselves with meaning and with inspiration.

For the most part, people have, throughout history, had to wait and to see what viruses might break out, as in that film, Contagion.  True, people have learned to store some viruses as so-called weapons, with so-called “chemical warfare,” that entered battlefields by the early twentieth century.  But those were viruses and illness distilled, as it were, from age-old plagues and outbreaks.

Around 1988, however, something rather unprecedented happened.  A new kind of virus came upon the world for which we human beings, for the first time in our history, had total responsibility and total control.  It is a virus which is totally made by human beings and which afflicts what human beings have made.

I refer to the “Computer Virus.”

Computer viruses are wanton human tampering with machines and data, in order to vex and to hurt other human beings.

Here in Hyde Park, we learned about computer viruses in November 1988, my first year in Hyde Park, when we discovered that a computer virus had invaded the network at the University of Chicago along with 6,000 other such systems in the United States, England and Japan.  Two of the university’s machines were hit, but the virus was blocked by computers at Argonne National Laboratory.  Even a computer at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem became lethargic, and not even chicken soup could help!

The early symptoms of computer viruses were rather mild.  Machines ran more slowly than normal, or with exaggerated speed.  Their load might have increased suddenly.  Like biological viruses, computer viruses can reproduce themselves.  These viruses can destroy memory data.  From the start, computer viruses could decimate hours or even years of information gathering, or affect the way that machines function, or simply fill the screen with nonsense pictures and slogans and charts.  Computer viruses brought malicious human tampering to a new low.

By the end of 1988, that early internet virus had affected, by some estimates, over 50,000 university, corporate or military machines world-wide.  A new industry was born in response to the demand for computer virus blockers and killers.  It is now as far-reaching as the pharmaceutical industry.  The anti-computer virus science is already as advanced in its way as advanced medicine is today.

Right after those first computer viruses, articles began to appear in periodicals:  “Computer Viruses:  The AIDS of the Computer Age?”, “Could A Virus Infect Military Computers?”  Writers called the virus “the plague of the information age, “clever, nasty and definitely anti-social.”  One observer wrote:  “Someone who leaves a virus is like a terrorist in a train station.  He leaves a bomb and runs and he doesn’t know who [sic!] he is hurting.”  Already in 1988, a foresighted writer, William E. Halal, asked, “Could computer-wise terrorists bring the Pentagon down?  Might some disgruntled employee at a brokerage firm implant a virus that could trigger disastrous computerized trading?  How hard would it be for a stressed-out air traffic controller to create a computer virus that could wipe out radar screens during a blinding storm?”

In recent years we have seen hackers attempt to attack the Pentagon and other high security areas.  This past year, computers at the Swedish Prosecution Authority were crashed for the first time ever by supporters of Wikileaks, who hacked into the websites of critics.  Hate groups continue to fill the internet with venom, and cyber bullying has led to tragedies.  Flashmobs, once harmless fun, are now summoned over the internet for robberies and bodily injury.  Yet in some instances, computer hacking has prevented acts of terrorism and perhaps even held back the manufacture of a nuclear bomb or two.

It is a tribute to our Talmudic tradition of debating what is ethical and when that discussions about ethics and computers began decades ago.  There is no question that, in just about every imaginable scenario, creating computer viruses would be a grave violation of Jewish Law.  On the grounds of Baal Tashhit, the prohibition against wantonly destroying fruit-bearing trees and other natural phenomena, and even human-made objects, computer viruses are an evil enterprise.  Our tradition respects the dignity of labor.  To undo one’s hard work, in any way, to expunge one’s carefully collected data, in the name of a prank or revenge or as a “challenge,” is a sin.  To trick people with virus e-mails violates the biblical prohibition, “You shall not put a stumbling block before the blind,” which our Sages interpreted to prohibit the purposeful misleading of others.  Above all, to cause potential danger to others, or to be responsible for loss of time and money on their part, is to be responsible for any losses they may incur.

A computer virus is, in many ways, as much of a challenge as the skin diseases encountered by the kohanim or priests in the Torah.  You can’t cure it by taking the stricken computer out of the office for a temporary quarantine.  There are intricate networks and connections involved, joining all parts of the world, with wires or even without them.

Technological maladies can be as frightening as biological ones, if not more so.  One writer, George Gilder, suggested that computers have a religious significance, that they prove the existence of God because humans are finally spreading their intelligence and consciousness and not simply materialism in their creations.  Yet, I dare say, the computer virus demonstrates that computers are not a new Torah that reveals God in a more profound way, but are just another activity of human beings that requires the teachings, values and concerns of Torah.  Gregory Bateson wryly observed, “I’ll believe that computers can think when you ask one a question and it replies, “That reminds me of a story.”

An internet joke suggested that a “kosher computer” would respond to inappropriate use by saying, “If your mother knew you did this, she would hollish.”  Someone once observed that some day we might be able to say this about the development of computers:  “At first, if you typed ‘Dear John,’ a little paperclip would say, ‘Do you want to write a letter?’  Later, when computers got more intelligent, they said:  ‘Don’t write that letter.  You’re making a mistake.’”

To truly benefit from technology, we human beings, as individuals and as societies, need to come to terms with our destructive side or yetzer ha-ra, and try to be what our Sages descrbed as a Roeh et Ha-Nolad, to discern the possible consequences of our actions and to inoculate ourselves, with the Torah, from destructive deeds.

After I had finished most of this sermon, I made the time to see the film, Contagion.  I don’t suppose that you would believe me if I said that I went to see the movie for the sole purpose of finishing this sermon.  (That would have been a very good excuse for rabbis to have used seventy or eighty years ago, when films were regarded by many as a frivolous waste of time.)  But this time I did want to see how the themes of sickness and technology were handled in a popular movie.  Those issues are certainly anticipated in the Torah and in our High Holy Day prayers.

The film confirmed the importance of these topics.  It also raised internet issues, suggesting that certain bloggers could be “spreading contagion” of their own in the form of false information and scare tactics.  It was uplifting in that it depicted health workers and physicians who were willing to sacrifice for others.  Unlike the various Law and Order series on TV, whose Jewish doctors are often mercenary and morally weak, it offered a positive tribute to a Jewish doctor, portrayed with dignity by Elliot Gould.

Computer viruses, like biological diseases, can remind us, as the Torah admonishes us, to “Choose life”:  to do what we can to help others, and to live in a responsible, thoughtful, creative and constructive way, to seek God and to cherish Torah.

To all of you and all your dear ones, I say, in the words of an old Sephardic greeting for Rosh Hashanah, “Tizku l’shanim rabbot—May you merit and attain many years, years of health, strength, joy, Torah and mitzvoth, for you and all your dear ones.”  Amen.

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Tue, February 20 2024 11 Adar I 5784