Written by Dr. Michael Schulman
The world is still struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic, and there are still conflicting reports and opinions from news agencies and social media that are vying to clarify or confuse the issues – how did the pandemic start? who is at fault? what is the most effective treatment? should people be restricted from going about their business outside their homes? The list goes on, and the opinions sway as new information comes to light.
Just as important is to know where we go from here. We are all in the same boat, being swept downstream to an uncertain future. What can we do to turn this ship around, or at least to secure life rafts for ourselves, our families, and others who will join us?
Not surprisingly, this problem could be tackled (and could have been prevented or mitigated) by applying the obligation for all people to abide by the ethics of the Seven Universal Commandments for all mankind. These were given by G-d through Noah when he stepped out from the ark. Noah was welcomed by a rainbow with seven colors, and by a message from G-d, that never again would He cleanse the world of mankind. These are the words of G-d’s covenant that He made at that time (Genesis 9:8-17):
And G-d said to Noah and his children with him, saying: “And I, behold I am setting up My covenant [1st] with you and with your seed after you… And I will establish My covenant [2nd] with you, and never again will all flesh be cut off by the floodwaters…”
And G-d said: “This is the sign of the covenant [3rd], which I am placing between Me and between you… My rainbow I have placed in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant [4th] between Myself and the earth… And I will remember My covenant [5th], which is between Me and between you and between every living creature among all flesh… And the rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will see it, to remember the everlasting covenant [6th] between G-d and between every living creature among all flesh, which is on the earth.”
And G-d said to Noah: “This is the sign of the covenant [7th] that I have set up, between Myself and between all flesh that is on the earth.”
Why did G-d say the word “covenant” seven times? It was to emphasize that His covenant was being made in the context of a set of Seven Commandments, and this would ensure that people would never again succumb to a complete pandemic of evil behavior as they did before the Flood. Very simply stated:
Let’s examine some ways in which these commandments and their logical extensions apply to this pandemic
1. Don’t worship idols. Genesis 2:16 states: “And the L-rd G-d commanded to the man, saying…” This implies that G-d endowed humans with freedom of choice to obey and honor Him, and thereby make a personal connection with Him. The greatest honor for any person is making the choice to turn away from false deities and to serve and worship G-d instead.
There is a form of idolatry that played heavily into this pandemic – Atheism, which is the worst type of idolatry since it causes the greatest separation between a person and G-d. It precludes any thought of obedience to G-d. It provides for pursuing any desires and ambitions, without fear of G-d’s judgment or acknowledging the sanctity of human life. It leads people to accept things like a political party, or their own self-righteousness, as their substitute gods. It was from a country that officially professes Atheism that the COVID-19 virus spread out while the rest of the world was uninformed and unprepared.
How we can help: In a world full of idolatry, Abraham “called out there in the name of the L-rd, G-d of the world” (Genesis 21:33). He taught that G-d and the world are not separate. If we let this truth permeate our behavior and our children’s education, it will open more people’s eyes to the message that He is giving us now. G-d’s expectation for mankind is that His world should not be a jungle or a free-for-all. It is His palace where His Essence will soon be revealed. So before deciding what to do or say, ask yourself, what does G-d say about this? You’ll find the answer in the moral lessons of these Seven Commandments.
2. Don’t blaspheme. Leviticus 24:15 states: “ish ish [Hebrew for ‘any man’] who curses his G-d shall bear his sin.” The expression “ish ish” (which literally means “a man, a man”) indicates the inclusion of all mankind. Thus it is prohibited for Gentiles to curse G-d’s Name. Logically, this would be an extension of the prohibition of idolatry, since there is no greater denial of G-d’s sovereignty than blasphemy. As a separate commandment, it teaches about the power of our speech. Humans are distinguished from all other earthly creations, not only in their intellect and free will, but also in their power of speech, and in the power of their speech.
A person who swears falsely in G-d’s Name also desecrates His Name, as it says (Leviticus 19:12), “You shall not swear in My Name falsely, and desecrate the Name of G-d…” When making a false oath, the person denies the truth of G-d in whose Name he swears. By logical extension, it is also forbidden to lie or engage in deceit. In the current situation, we’ve seen that propaganda, falsified or suppressed information and biased reporting have been involved in shaping opinions about the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, public scrutiny has exposed some of this.
How we can help: Everyone can set a higher moral standard for his speech, knowing that it has a real impact on others and on the world, for good or the opposite. The COVID-19 masks reminded us that we need to shut our lips to block harmful statements and gossip. On a deeper level, a person who speaks negatively brings the opposite of blessings, and we open channels for G-d’s blessings when we speak positively. Jeremiah advised (29:7), “Seek the peace of the city… and pray for it, for through its peace, you will have peace.” Even those who led us down a wrong path in the past should be encouraged to reverse course and align their efforts with the standards of the Seven Commandments.
3. Don’t murder. Genesis 9:5-6 states, “And surely your blood of your lives I will require; [if placed] at the hand every beast I will require it; at the hand of every person – of every person by his fellow – I will require the life of the person… for in the image of G-d He made man.” From analysis of these verses, it’s found that suicide, killing through the agency of an animal, sending someone to murder, and elective abortion are included. By extension, it includes the obligation to maintain one’s health, and for doctors to prescribe good treatments, even if they aren’t the most expensive.
The pandemic has led to increased killing by euthanasia, and suicides by doctors and nurses. But at the same time, elective abortions are down where it has been recognized as a non-essential procedure. In the area of treatment, doctor’s choices should not be based on coercion to prescribe more expensive medications. Of course, people should take measures to avoid contracting COVID-19, based on expert unbiased advice.
How we can help: Saving one person’s life is considered by G-d as saving the entire world, and by helping to reverse an anti-life policy in your country, you may save thousands of lives. Not everyone has freedom to do this, but there is an extension of this commandment that everyone can observe, to be careful in speaking about others. The concept of “spilling blood” includes not to make someone’s “face turn red,” i.e., not to cause embarrassment. Speech that results in “assassination of character” may be nearly as evil as murder. Instead, we need to spread more “aliveness” through uplifting others by doing acts of goodness and kindness.
4. Don’t have forbidden relations. Five types of intercourse are forbidden to Gentiles in Genesis 2:24: “A man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” This covers relations of a man with his mother, with a woman who has been his father’s wife, with the wife of another man, with another male, or anyone with an animal. Relations with a maternal sister are also forbidden, as stated by Abraham in Genesis 20:13: “Moreover, she is… not my mother’s daughter; and she became my wife.”
Beyond these, a nation needs to be stable and orderly, as stated in Isaiah 45:18, “the L-rd… Who formed the earth and made it, He established it; He did not create it for a waste, He formed it to be inhabited…” Governments are thus warned not to condone behaviors that result in sexual abuse, exploitation, human trafficking, or disintegration of the society into materialistic hedonism. This is essential for the protection of women and children and the classic institution of marriage. The social distancing during the pandemic had a good effect on reducing exploitation of children and prostitution. It’s estimated that up to 100,000 prostitutes in Germany have had a significant downturn in their business, and the same thing has happened in Asia.
How we can help: The Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hassidic movement, taught that what a person sees or hears comes by Divine Providence to give a message about his service to G-d. This applies even more to something that happens to a community or a nation, or the whole world. The lockdowns during the pandemic brought classic families closer and reduced the fixations that many people have on materialism and illicit relations. G-d doesn’t command anything that’s too difficult to do, and many people found during the pandemic that they’re able to do without activities that they had been mentally addicted to. When the restrictions lift, people should go from strength to strength, and be part of the solution instead of the problem.
5. Don’t steal. This universal commandment is seen in Genesis 21:25: “And Abraham confronted Abimelech about the well of water that Abimelech’s servants had violently taken away.” The “violence” that brought the most guilt before the Flood (Genesis 6:11) and in Nineveh (Jonah 3:8) included robbery and other ill-gotten gains. There are also actions that aren’t completely theft but are forbidden as a danger to society, in which a victimized person feels robbed. There may be ill-gotten gain when there is a short supply of commodities with high demand. Pandemics provide temptations for over-pricing essential items, withholding effective inexpensive medications in favor of high-priced treatments, or selling defective medical equipment.
How we can help: Theft causes corruption and moral deterioration. People who don’t avoid and abhor theft can become powerful enough to deal dishonestly on a grand scale. This prohibition teaches respect for others and their possessions, needs, and rights. Although a person by nature covets what someone else has or accomplishes, you can be scrupulous not to obtain anything dishonestly or coercively. G-d wants a person to better his situation honestly, which makes the world a better place.
6. Don’t eat meat taken from a living animal. After the Flood, G-d permitted people to eat meat, and He added a commandment against eating meat from a living animal. These are stated in Genesis 9:3-4: “Every moving thing that lives shall be for food for you… But meat, with its soul [while it is in] its blood you shall not eat.”
The Biblical text next gives the prohibition of murder and injury (Genesis 9:5-6), to clarify that injurious food (e.g., animals with harmful viruses or parasites) should not be eaten. Another prohibition derived from this applies to cruelty to animals. They must not be subjected to unnecessary pain and suffering, even if they will be used for food. Coverage of this pandemic brought attention to places where animals are subjected to torture while being processed for food or baseless folk remedies (e.g., supposed aphrodisiacs made from rhino horns, or bears constrained to live immobilized while their bile is continuously drained).
How we can help: This commandment’s underlying principle is not to inflict pain upon animals. Since we should feel distressed about an animal’s suffering, we should feel more distressed about people’s suffering and act to reduce it! Everyone should give charity and promote justice, but that’s not sufficient, as it says (Zechariah 1:14-15), “So said the L-rd of Hosts… I am very angry with the nations that are at ease…” There are people around the world suffering from deprivation, especially due to the pandemic, and some will receive charity. But if more people are distressed about it, they’ll be motivated to fix the root causes, not just the superficial effects.
7. Establish courts of law. G-d commanded the establishment of courts for trial of murderers, as stated in Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, through man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of G-d He made man.” It must be emphasized that if the majority of a society permits transgression at least one of the Seven Commandments, the courts are not permitted to inflict capital punishment for any crime under normal circumstances. But if a government needs this penalty for murder only, due to a great need for more safety, it is permitted, but not required, and only if there is no prejudice in sentencing.
A prerequisite for courts and law enforcement to abide by high standards of justice is a government that makes righteous laws with the public’s consent. A government that forces itself on a nation, without the citizens’ freely accepting it through a constitutional framework, is not a valid form of governance. That’s why governments such as the USSR that violate their own constitutions do not last. Democracies as well shouldn’t take advantage of a crisis such as a pandemic to make arbitrary laws that aren’t beneficial, and courts should not legislate or use discrimination.
How we can help: Justice and charity go hand-in-hand, dating back to Abraham, as G-d said (Genesis 18:19): “I love him because he commands his children and household after him that they shall keep the way of G-d to do charity and justice…” Proper charity is guaranteed to help bring the redemption, and it actualizes our concern about needy people. This also applies to helping those who are spiritually needy, through outreach about the Seven Universal Commandments and the improvements they bring.
We have reviewed the Universal, or Noahide, Commandments that have relevance for all societies, along with some offshoots that are logically obvious and essential for improving the stability, peace, and well-being of any nation. Let’s strive for these lessons to be applied in responding to the pandemic and exiting from it safely and peacefully.
For more information, and downloading or ordering outreach materials for promoting these Seven Commandments, visit Asknoah.org.
Dr. Michael Schulman is Executive Director of Ask Noah International, with prayers for a complete recovery for Rabbi Chaim Yaakov Zev ben Sara (Rogalsky).