I’ve always felt that one of the basic roles of a teacher is to reveal things that are hidden. My most memorable and influential teachers were those that gave me insight into things that I never saw, never saw about myself or about the world around me.
I was reminded of the Wizard of Oz, who once outed for not being a real wizard, showed he was a good teacher, revealing to the lion his bravery, the straw man his brain, the tin man his heart, and Dorothy a way to go home. His teaching, for those students, would have been profound and transforming.
And Shavuot? Moishe rabbenu, after having his own direct revelation, comes to the Israelites with something new, a revelation about what God expects from humans. Moses revealed something to the Israelites and through that revelation, changed the world. This is what good teachers do; they offer revelations profound and transforming.
It’s not that only people that can be a teacher, revealing things that are hidden to us. Grudgingly, I accept that our dog Ellie— and I never wanted to have a dog— has taught me a great deal, especially, in the last year or so, about the potential of inter-species communication.
But an even more provocative revelation was offered me by an organism perhaps one tenth of a millimeter long. I was 19 or 20 years old, and I had been studying a tiny ciliated protozoan, one that, under the microscope, looked like a glittering star. This critter just twinkled away under my gaze, and then seemingly instantaneously moved to another location and resumed its twinkling. It seemed to accelerate in an instant and then come to a dead stop. That was the moment I got it—this creature, this single free-living cell, had an intent. Somehow, this creature decided that where it was, was not where it wanted to be. My sense was that something was going on inside that cell, something that wasn’t all that different in quality from what goes on inside me. Both that little animal and I have intents and purposes and we both can express them. And then all of those little things, many of whom I would kill and stick on to slides, became very and differently alive to me. They were doing things that I might not understand, but I felt a consciousness, and an affiliation, with those tiny cells.
It seems to me that the COVID-19 virus is acting as a very powerful teacher these days, revealing much, to those of us fortunate enough to not fall ill with it if we are open to being taught.
First of all, the novel coronavirus reveals to us that we are creatures subject to the same laws of nature that slime molds, slugs and all other living things are subject to; they can be infected by novel diseases that kill them, and so can we. As living, vulnerable creatures, we do not have total control over the world, and this an important revelation for many of us. It is perhaps that disorienting feeling of not being in control that is so disturbing, that a virus is now running our lives, that we are not the rulers of the planet and all that happens on it.
The virus forces us to think in terms of systems, and recognize that not only are we vulnerable creatures, but that we are creatures in a system with other creatures and with inanimate things like gases, nutrients, radiation, heat and cold. And try as we might, we cannot always understand the parts of the system we are part of, nor can we always predict the path a system will take. The system has its own logic and perhaps even its own ends, reminding me of a little poem by my New England countryman, the acerbic poet Robert Frost, who wrote:
We dance round in a ring and suppose
But the secret sits in the middle, and knows.
The virus has revealed some very important aspects of how our society operates. Who among us can now be unaware of the folks, low paid and often in Canada as temporary workers, who actually provide us with food. We all know about the rancher who owns herds of cattle, but now we can’t not know about the slaughterhouse workers risking COVID-19 so we can have the meats we expect to see in our stores. We all now know about the migrant farm workers, many coming long distances to work in our fields, without whom our vegetables and fruits wouldn’t be grown or harvested. We now see the folks putting our groceries into bags as heroes, as we see the paramedics, respiratory technologists and nurses. Caregivers, caring for seniors or very young children, are critical. Much of this was hidden from us before; now, we see.
The virus has revealed nature to us. We’ve seen the herds of goats moving into rural Welsh villages now that cars are off the roads. We’re able to hear more bird songs and, with fewer cars and trucks on the road resulting in improved air quality around the world, many can now see the night sky. The virus is revealing nearby-nature to many people, folks are noticing the birds and mammals in our neighbourhoods. The pandemic shows that we can improve local environments for both people and nature.
The virus has revealed the weaknesses of our economic system. We can’t honestly say ‘we’re all in this together’, when we have a system of wealth distribution that creates groups that are truly not with the rest of us. The virus has revealed how fragile globalization is, and the risks we face through easily-broken supply chains or just-in-time provisioning. Indeed, we’ve also witnessed the fragility of our political institutions as we watch demagogues dismantle democracies around the world; another teaching that the virus offers us.
Learning something new can also compel us to unlearn things that are old and no longer useful. Many things that we are learning about the world, things that may have been relatively invisible to us before early March, are now unmistakably visible and inasmuch as we see them, we can’t allow ourselves to forget them.
We have to unlearn that humans are exceptional and we have to unlearn that humans not subject to the laws of nature.
We have to unlearn that the services nature provides through pollination, provision of water and more are free and of no concern to our economies.
We have to unlearn that our food just appears in the supermarket and we have to unlearn that we don’t have to consider those people, often dark-skinned and under-paid, that bring it to us.
Aldo Leopold wrote, in A Sand County Almanac,
“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.”
We have to unlearn that the drive for big profits is an admirable thing and we have to unlearn that it is OK to have the 100 highest-paid Canadian CEOs making more than 209 times the average Canadian worker.
We have to unlearn that our democratic institutions are solid, eternal and invulnerable.
We have to unlearn that environmental degradation is something that we just have to accept it.
But of course, teachers teach, but do learners learn, and can we as a society both local, national and global, adequately unlearn ? That will be our test? Will we understand our creatureliness, our lives embedded in social and ecological and economic systems, our dependence on the invisible others who provide us with what we take for granted? Can we unlearn what our society continually has whispered into our ears for as long as most of us have been alive and begin to step back from unsustainable economic, spiritual practices, social and environmental practices?
The virus reveals much: that many of the things we took as givens are not givens at all, and that many things we thought could never change can, and indeed must, change. We can choose to continue to do the right and important things that we have recently learned even once the virus risk is reduced. If we can learn the lessons of the pandemic and unlearn those things that have brought us to this point, the pain and suffering of those hundreds of thousands of victims of this terrible pandemic will not have been in vain.
Cemetery Director, Congregation Emanu-El