With each new update on the coronavirus in China, we get a little more fearful that this could be the big one, a major outbreak that overwhelms our globalized world. Governments impose travel restrictions and quarantines, but is it possible to effectively contain the virus in our highly connected world? Are we simply at the mercy of the epidemic?
In spite of the great advances in epidemiology and health care, the coronavirus reminds us that we are still at the mercy of forces beyond our control. Technology allows us to control and contain these outbreaks, but it is difficult to defeat them.
As we watch the reported cases from China continue to grow, we might pause to reflect on how our ancestors dealt with situations like this. In the past, people had even fewer tools at their disposal to deal with epidemics and plaques. They turned to the only resources available: folk remedies and spirituality.
Jeremy Brown, a doctor and author of the book Influenza: The Hundred-Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History, offers a Jewish remedy that was used in Philadelphia during the last great pandemic (the Spanish Flu of 1918) and others before it. It was called the Shvartze Chassaneh, the Black Wedding, and involved matching orphans of the disease in matrimony at a cemetery where guests would give gifts to the couple as they begin their new life together.
While the Black Wedding might sound like a scene out of a grim horror movie, it makes sense in a context where communities were at the mercy of a merciless epidemic. If you couldn’t cure the disease, perhaps you could appeal to divine intervention. Jewish tradition is filled with examples of the community coming together to ask God for help from disaster. For example, the Talmud records ceremonies to ask for rain during droughts.
What is poignant about the Black Wedding is the addition of an act of chesed, kindness, to the ritual. It’s not just that God is asked for help, but that the community helps the most vulnerable in their midst as an act of prayer and hope. The message seems to be twofold. The first is: look God, we are doing something good for this poor couple so please help us.
The second message of the Black Wedding is that the community has not lost hope in the midst of tragedy. The ceremony takes place in the cemetery, amidst the graves of the victims of the outbreak. Even in the face of great tragedy we embrace life. We will survive the coronavirus, as we did the Spanish Flu, as we did the droughts of ancient times as long as we hold on to hope.