Contagion (2011), directed by Steven Soderbergh

Do you remember where you were on 9/11? I do. I was principal of Columbus Torah Academy and was called to the office to see what was unfolding on TV. It was a horrific sight, hitherto unimaginable. I called an assembly and spoke to the students about evil in the world and about how good ultimately triumphs because God is in charge. Therefore, know that in spite of the current tragedy, we will endure and live to a better day. In the interim, we need to pray for the victims and do whatever we can to help our fellow citizens in distress.

It is this kind of cataclysmic event that Contagion describes, but in this case it is an unknown, deadly virus that kills millions of people. Contagion is not a horror movie. Rather, it works as a thriller, which imagines in a very logical way the consequences of a virus infection that has no known cure. Although the movie is populated with A-list actors, the main character is the disease. All the players unassumingly portray human responses to crisis. Many respond with fear. Some, such as an unscrupulous blogger, see the crisis as a way to make money by suggesting that the government is conspiring with the drug companies to make a financial killing. Fortunately, some respond with altruism.

Examples of altruism punctuate Contagion. A dying woman offers her blanket to another patient shivering from cold. A doctor injects herself with a trial vaccine to test whether it will be effective with humans. Another doctor gives the preventive vaccine to a neighbor’s son rather than use it himself. A scientist who abandons protocol to find a stable version of the virus does not try to make a profit by selling his research to a drug company. Instead, he shares his findings with the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, the agency best equipped to develop a vaccine to halt the spread of the virus. These vignettes recall the Jewish value of showing kindness to others, and not using crisis for personal advantage.

The Ethics of the Fathers teaches that the world depends on acts of loving kindness. From where is this derived? From God Himself, who clothed Adam and Eve even after they sinned, and who buried Moses at the end of his life.  Moreover, the patriarch Abraham personifies kindness. Even when he is in pain suffering the aftereffects of circumcision, he greets total strangers and welcomes them into his tent. Furthermore, when he seeks a wife for his son Isaac, the litmus test is whether the prospective bride will manifest compassion for weary animals in addition to his emissaries. Rebecca seals her destiny when she brings water for the camels as well as for the tired travelers.

It is comforting to feel that at moments of crisis, good people will step forward to help. Not everyone will be motivated by selfishness. There is a touching coda at the end of Contagion that indicates a hopeful future. Mitch, husband of Beth, the first victim, is privately perusing photos of his wife in his upstairs bedroom. He breaks down in tears, and then hears his teenage daughter calling him. He comes down, sees her dancing with her boyfriend as they prepare to go to Prom Night. He smiles as he realizes that his daughter is alive with a bright future ahead.

This also is a Jewish sensibility: to go beyond mourning and to see continuity. The traditional Jewish mourning food is the egg, totally round and without an opening, without a mouth. Our Sages tell us that this is a metaphor for mourning, a time when we cannot articulate our pain. But the egg is round, and this symbolizes the reality that life moves on beyond tragedy, and that a cycle of renewal can begin even after great loss. This is a valuable life lesson for all of us.

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