From Individual Despair to Collective Hope
Collaborating to Survive
This incredible photo is taken from a 2018 story demonstrating how animals take refuge in the trees from the floodwaters in Kimberly, Australia, rubbing shoulders with their predators in the name of survival. Indeed there are many examples of how in the presence of a natural disaster, such as a fire, tsunami or earthquake, predators seem to “turn off” their desire to eat other animals, while their potential prey lose their instinctive fear, as if the stronger instinct (greater desire) to survive the common calamity overrides the built-in flight or fight logic.
But humans, even at a time of a collective disaster such as COVID, do not behave in this way. Many people refuse to wear masks or get vaccinated, and some protest vehemently against what they see as infringement of their “civil rights”. These ostensibly personal decisions put others at risk. As we enter winter we are witnessing a new surge of coronavirus in Europe and other parts of the world. A recent report reminds us that “Europe’s deadly new COVID-19 wave shows the perils of low vaccination rates”. Based on similar expert analysis, German Health Minister Jens Spahn stated blankly that “unvaccinated Germans are responsible for the fourth Covid wave“.”
Governments, politicians and businessmen seem to do their best to profit from the pandemic at the expense of others, even though by this they inflict “double damage” on others and ultimately on themselves. As Gorana Grgic described recently in The international politics of the pandemic, superpowers such as Russia and China have used their ability to manufacture vaccines as a way to “project their influence by providing medical aid to countries in need”, especially developing countries around Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Others such as the US and the EU focused more on keeping all the vaccinations for themselves, even though they had sufficient supplies to share with the rest of the world. Grgic writes that “At the international level … states continue to show that for governments, pursuing self-interest comes before the common global good. If this pandemic has taught the world anything, it is how small the international community is, and how closing borders can work for only so long and for only certain countries. The last year should have taught policymakers that unless the whole world can be protected from the virus, no one can really be safe. If they haven’t mastered that lesson, they better learn quickly.”
Many of the COVID variants originated in developing countries, including China, India, Brazil, Peru, the Philippines and South Africa. On November 26, following the appearance of the Omicron variant, WHO ambassador for global health financing (and previously UK prime minister from 2007 to 2010) Gordon Brown wrote that “A new COVID variant is no surprise when rich countries are hoarding vaccines”. He points out that “only 3% of people in low-income countries are fully vaccinated, while the figure exceeds 60% in both high-income countries and upper-middle-income countries. Every day, for every vaccine delivered as first vaccines in the poorest countries, six times as many doses are being administered as third and booster vaccines in the richest parts of the world”. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom noted sadly that Vaccine Nationalism “Harms Everyone and Protects No One”. But these words seem to fall on deaf ears.
And while Covid-19 had a devastating impact on the poor, increasing the global figure of those considered to live in extreme poverty in 2020 by an estimated 11.6% (an additional 100 million people), the combined wealth of the world’s 10 richest men rose by $540 billion, enough to pay for vaccines for the entire human population and save large parts of the world from falling into post-COVID poverty.
We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
Bats have been widely assumed to be the source of COVID-19 although the origin of the virus remains a mystery. Scientists have yet to find the Corona virus in any bats or pangolins living in the wild. Some people believe that Chinese scientists who were studying coronaviruses in the Wuhan institute may have leaked the strain, a speculation that the government of China strongly denies. We may never know the truth. But interestingly a recent study at Tel Aviv university revealed that bats self-isolate when sick, thereby helping prevent outbreaks of epidemics.
The study monitored two colonies of Egyptian fruit bats — one living in an enclosure and the other in its natural environment. To examine the behavior of bats when they get sick, the researchers injected several bats in each group with a bacteria-like protein, thereby stimulating their immune response without generating any real danger to the bats. Tests revealed symptoms such as a high fever, fatigue and weight loss, and the ‘sick’ bats’ behavior was tracked with GPS.
The researchers discovered that the ‘sick’ bats chose to keep away from the colony. In the first group, they left the bat cluster of their own accord and kept their distance. In the second group the ‘sick’ bats likewise moved away from the other bats in the colony, and also stayed in the colony and did not go out in search of food for two successive nights.
Perhaps we owe the bats an apology?
Apparently animals do not need regulations such as lock-down, isolation, and social distancing to know how to behave in a way that is good not only for themselves but for the collective. Why is human social conduct demonstrated by both individuals and governments so ignorant of the fact that we are all parts of one collective, one whole? What is this basic law of Nature that we need to learn, or perhaps have forgotten?
Arvut (Mutual Responsibility)
The wisdom of Kabbalah uses a special term for this hidden law of Nature: Arvut. This Hebrew word means mutual responsibility or mutual guarantee. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who wrote the Book of Zohar together with his nine disciples 2000 years ago, explained the concept of Arvut with an allegory about two people on a boat. One of them began to drill a hole in the boat. His friend asked, “Why are you drilling?” He replied, “What business is it of yours? I am drilling under me, not under you.” So his friend replied, “Fool! We will both drown together!” (VaYikra Rabba, Chapter 4).
20th century Kabbalist Rav Yehuda Ashlag elaborates this notion further in his article The Peace: “Each and every individual in society is like a wheel that is linked to several other wheels placed in a machine. This single wheel has no freedom of movement in and of itself but continues with the motion of the rest of the wheels in a certain direction to qualify the machine to perform its general function.
And if there is some malfunction in the wheel, the malfunction is not evaluated relating to the wheel itself, but according to its service and role with respect to the whole machine.”
But if we are all interconnected like cogwheels in a machine or cells in a body, if we are all one, how come we don’t know this, we don’t feel this?
Freedom of Choice
The answer is that this oblivion is by design. Not knowing something to begin with allows you to learn it, and thereby acquire it through your own efforts. In the words of Dr. Michael Liteman, “Humans aren’t animals. If we were, we wouldn’t evolve the way we have; we wouldn’t have developed civilization and we wouldn’t have developed global interdependence. Humans are meant to mingle because only mingling, connecting, and disagreeing, force us to find a tighter bond than separate animal species cohabitating.”
In other words, only by uniting we can come to feel consciously what animals feel instinctively: that we are all connected. Instead of sensing that connection and following it instinctively, and therefore unconsciously, we humans must work on our connection and overcome our built-in rejection of others, our biases and tendency for competition and conflicts. In the process, we become aware of all the intricacies in our connection, cherish it, and comprehend it on levels that no animal can. This is the advantage of man over beast: the profound understanding of the makeup of life. But it happens only if we 1) reveal the separation that exists between us, and 2) work to overcome it.
Humanity is at a crisis. Our future seems bleak. We can’t even see a way out of our predicament. But this is so because we look at our lives through an individual and egoistic perspective. Instead we should realize that everything that is happening is actually a learning process, intended to show us the state of egoism, separation and mutual hatred we exist in, and then teach us the way out of it to a state of connection, harmony and peace. With that realization will come a new direction, new inner powers and a new destiny for all of us to pursue, one that is far more exciting and rewarding than we could possibly imagine, one that will truly make us mankind.
“We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness.”
— Albert Einstein
 A Metallica song, probably a reference to a 1944 poem by E. E Cummings.