| Second Thoughts |

The Wings of the Butterfly

If bad is contagious, is it not possible that good is also contagious?


Since the coronavirus crisis is creating chaos in our daily routines, let us try a bit of chaos theory. The essence of chaos theory is this: something as insignificant as the flutter of a butterfly’s wings can cause a typhoon halfway around the world. That is to say, the entire physical universe is interrelated, interconnected, intertwined. What I do here physically affects something somewhere else physically.

Long before chaos theory, Rav Yisrael Salanter anticipated it in spiritual terms. He said that when a yeshivah bochur in Warsaw ponders a difficult Gemara, it makes it easier for a Jew in Paris to return to Yiddishkeit. What I do here spiritually affects someone somewhere else spiritually.

John Donne said it well: “No man is an island entire of itself… Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind…. Therefore ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee….”

Certainly COVID-19 underscores for us the interconnectivity of all humanity. The food chain is interconnected, as is manufacturing, as is medication, as is the building industry, as is scholarship, agriculture, and science. The whole world is dependent on one another. As the virus spreads, it only underscores how intertwined all mankind is.

What can we learn from the coronavirus pandemic? If bad is contagious, is it not possible that good is also contagious? An evil word spreads, destroying reputations. A kind word spreads, encouraging people, reviving them. Some contagions are harmful, some are beneficial.

A small act, a simple kindness, reverberates across great distances and affects lives unknown to us. Kindness is contagious; it has echoes that increase in intensity each time it is passed on. A simple courtesy or thoughtful act ultimately becomes, somewhere, an act of supreme self-sacrifice and surrender. The good can spread as quickly as the bad, but we don’t see it as clearly.

In our daily davening, just before the Shema, we refer to G-d as the zoreia tzedakos, the One Who “sows kindnesses….” An act of kindness is a like a seed that sows (zoreia) and produces a chain reaction of many flowers.

Similarly, every act of meanness, selfishness, or hatred, can become intensified and magnified as it spreads, affecting generations yet to come.

It is sobering to consider that so much depends on a single person, on an isolated act of goodness.

When we recover, with the help of G-d, from this worldwide plague, and when we emerge from our quarantines, maybe — in addition to replacing our arrogance with some humility — we will have learned the spiritual chaos theory: how utterly dependent we are upon one another, and how, like the butterfly, our every act leaves its imprint on the universe. And when we mention that classic Jewish dictum, “kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh,” it means not only that all Israel is responsible one for the other in a spiritual sense, but even in a physical sense. The way you behave affects me; the way I behave affects you.

That lovely springtime butterfly… does it realize the impact it is having on the world? And we humans and our unselfish gesture of kindness: do we realize the impact we can have on mankind?

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 812)

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