Did the Torah warn us about COVID-19?
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Did the Torah warn us about COVID-19?

Animal consumption leads to deadly plagues

A few people saw it coming, this Covid-19 pandemic.

There were epidemiologists and immunologists who sounded alarms about the coronavirus within days or weeks of its first appearance.

Going back quite a bit further, there was journalist and author David Quammen, who, in his highly-respected book “Spillover,” expressed concern in 2012 that the next major epidemic would emerge from an animal market in China.

But it’s not a stretch at all to say we were warned about this possibility 3,000 years ago, in the Torah.

There is a story in the Bible that most rabbis, pastors, priests and ministers usually ignore or gloss over — much to the detriment of their congregations, and of humanity as a whole.

In the story, found in Numbers 11, a large subset of the Moses-led Israelites dies in a gruesome plague — after they have eaten meat. The new coronavirus appears to have first entered the human population at a live-slaughter meat market in Wuhan, China. The parallels are rather obvious.

As the Biblical story goes, the Israelites, after escaping from Egypt, found themselves in a vast desert, without available food sources. This opened the door for God to reinstitute the original Divine directive, found in Genesis 1:29, to eat plants and only plants.

God fed the Israelites a single, health-sustaining food: manna. In the Torah, manna is compared to coriander seed.

What happened next is no different than what would happen today: People began complaining about the absence of meat.

The whiners were just a subset of the Israelites, but there were enough of them to provoke Moses to turn to God for help.

Moses: “Excuse me, God, they’re asking for meat. What am I supposed to do?”

God: “No worries, Moshe. I got this. If they want meat, I’ll give them meat until it’s coming out of their nostrils.”
A strong wind began to blow, and something began to fall from the sky. But it wasn’t rain. It was quail.

The meat-craving Israelites happily gorged themselves.

It would be their last meal. They died in a sudden plague.

And if the message that God didn’t want people to eat meat wasn’t clear enough, there is this: the meat-eaters who ate quail and died in a plague were buried in “Kibrot Ha-Ta’aveh,” the Graves of Gluttony.

There are at least two ways to view the Torah.

If you view it as the literal word of God, then the message of Numbers 11 is crystal clear. God was absolutely furious that people were clamoring for animal flesh. After all, we’re told in Genesis 1 to consume an animal-free diet, and we’re told in Genesis 2 that God created animals to be Adam’s companions, not his food source.

If you instead view the Torah as a metaphysical interpretation of historical events, then the story really gets interesting.

Viewed this way, a group of Israelites diverged from the communal diet and hunted quail.

The quail-eaters caught a virus from the quail and died rather quickly.

This interpretation is not so far-fetched. Quail have been identified as a major source of the deadly avian influenzas that have circulated through parts of Asia over the past dozen years. For some versions of those influenzas, the fatality rate for humans has exceeded 50 percent.

Whichever interpretation you prefer, we have to concede we were warned that the consumption of animals would lead to deadly plagues — warned 3,000 years ago.

To be clear, the COVID-19 pandemic should never be viewed as Divine punishment. Rather, the pandemic can be viewed as something we were warned would happen if humanity continues to confine, kill and consume animals.

Will we finally heed the warning? PJC

Jeffrey Spitz Cohan is the executive director of the nonprofit organization Jewish Veg.

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