Hindus and Buddhists call it Karma. Germans call it Schadenfreude. But do Jews have an expression to express fate or to express pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune? The closest corresponding phrase is “midah k’neged midah,” —“measure for measure.” One’s actions and they way they affect the world will eventually come to that person in ways one might not necessarily expect.
In a 2017 dracha, Rabbi David Wolfe described two Biblical passages from Bereishit (Genesis) that demonstrate this concept. In the first passage, Jacob takes advantage of his father’s age and blindness to fool Issac into believing hat he is his older twin Esau. As a result, he receives his older brother’s birthright/blessing.
Years later, Jacob falls deeply in love with Rachel. Agreeing to work for seven years for her father Laban, Jacob finally joins his bride under the chuppa. When he wakes up from the wedding night, however, Jacob realizes that under that heavy veil was Leah, the older and less desirable of the sisters. Rabbi Wolfe then calls on a midrash to explain the aftermath. Understandably, Jacob is very upset and demands to know why Leah tricked him. Leah ’s response: “You fooled your father into thinking you were your brother; I fooled you into thinking I was my sister.” In other words, what goes around comes around.
Just past midnight, on Friday, October 2, President Donald Trump tweeted that he and the First Lady had tested positive for COVID-19.The president’s diagnosis came after he spent months playing down the severity of the outbreak that has killed more than 215,000 in the United States and hours after insisting that “the end of the pandemic is in sight.” He has downplayed the virus again and again. More egregiously, this cavalier attitude has been passed on to his supporters. Republican leaders have incorporated this non-scientific approach into their politics, resulting in dismissing the need for masks and social distancing; opening up cities and states way before it was deemed safe by experts to do so; and touting the “success” of such operations that in truth do not exist.
After initially experiencing some of my own Schadenfreude, my Yom Kippur prayers of repentance kicked in. I sought out the high ground, which I saw in the Book of Proverbs: “If your enemy falls, do not exult; if he trips, let your heart not rejoice” So summoning up my best self, I hope that the president has a “Refuah Shleimah,” a complete recovery. I hope even more that this experience changes how he views COVID-19 and its impact on those not able to take a one mile plane ride to the country’s top hospital after experiencing “mild symptoms.”
My husband Larry and I have seen our lives upended, as have our extended family and our friends. Aborted trips. In person visits replaced with FaceTime calls. Cancelled bar mitzvahs, graduation parties, weddings, Zoom funerals. Limited visits with relatives in nursing homes.
But what we have experienced is nothing compared to the physical, emotional, and financial impact it has on others. On March 31, 2020, my friend Kathy, who had returned from a cruise “under the weather,” sent out a FaceBook post that she was being admitted to the hospital for what she believed was bronchitis. Within two days, she was hooked up to a ventilator. Her brother Bryan kept us informed daily on social media, describing Kathy’s ordeal in ICU in which she almost died several times. When she was finally breathing on her own, she spent several more weeks in rehab. She returned home two weeks ago, only to be rushed back to the hospital for more surgery related to complications of COVID.. As I said, I hope for the president’s recovery, but I wish he could experience just a fraction of what Kathy has been through.
Kathy has survived, but at least seven people in our community have succumbed. In the Orlando, Florida, area, thousands have lost jobs as Disney and other theme parks, Central Florida’s main employer, have seen low attendance. The ripple effect has closed many of our area’s restaurants and other businesses.
So, I know I join many Americans who hope that the Rose Garden Debacle, which lead to innumerable cases of this fast-spreading disease, will result in policy changes from President Trump and his supporters. Will the federal government finally organize a national response? Will masks and social distancing be mandatory everywhere, even when the president and like-minded Republicans are in attendance? Will first responders be finally given all needed supplies, including personal protective equipment (PPE) and enough tests? And will all leaders take a harder look at returning to Phase 1 protocols?
Or maybe I am just dreaming. On Sunday, October 4, I watched in disbelief as news stations covered the president’s commandeering a motorcade to greet his supporters outside of Walter Reed Hospital. Let us put this ten minute joy ride into perspective. Because of COVID, millions of us cannot see people we love. Because of COVID, thousands have had to lie in hospital beds with no contact with relatives. Because of COVID, many have DIED alone. But the president thought nothing of spending thousands of our tax payer dollars to get the adulation he cravenly requires. And he thought nothing of the danger he put his secret service staff (who were subsequently put in quarantine) and others to pull off this publicity stunt.To use the words of a popular meme on the Internet: I don’t wish this virus on anyone. I hope the president has a speedy recovery.And I hope he gets demolished at the ballot box. That will be for me “midah k’neged midah,” the most satisfying measure for measure.
First published in The Jewish World, October 8, 2020.