The Virus! – God’s Smallest of Messengers

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When Moshe came to Pharoh and told him to let the yidden go, Pharoh asked Moshe for some kind of wondrous sign that G-d had sent him. Moshe thereupon threw his stick down to the ground and it turned into a snake. Yet one wonders why of all things that the stick could have been turned into, did Hashem choose to turn it into a snake? What exact message was Moshe trying to convey?

A good look into Rashi (Shemos 79) will help us find the answer. Pharoh’s most obvious question to Moshe probably was “why did G-d send you? What need does a G-d have for sending messengers? He certainly knows my address and can speak for Himself. What need is there for a G-d to send a human messenger? Let Him deliver His message personally.

Moshe turned the stick into a snake thereby implying that The King of Kings has no reason to make house calls or a personal appearance. He has an infinite amount of messengers that do His bidding. For people who speak loshon horah, slander and dare use their evil tongue to deny His existence or refuse to harken to His voice, Hashem sends them his trusted messenger the snake to deliver His message.

Scientists have found that a snake has infrared sensors that can detect and find a human even in total darkness. One cannot hide from a snake. So, too, one cannot hide from Hashem. Hashem has an infinite amount of messengers that stand ready to do his bidding. Hashem sent Pharoh a small sampling of His mighty messengers that soon proved to him who is running the show. Not only did Hashem send them out, but He has full control of them at all times. The wild animals could only go up to where they were permitted While the animals couldn’t read the signs, they didn’t step even an inch into the land of Goshen They did exactly as they were told. “Sholach choshech va’ychshich, v’lo yomir es d’voro.” (Thillim)

When the Yidden in the midbor dared bad-mouth Hashem and His faithful servant Moshe, it was the snakes that came to his immediate defense and taught them a lesson they would long remember.

Even Moshe himself was frightened by the snake for he too had slandered the yidden by saying that “they would not listen to his voice.” While perhaps Moshe’s statement was partially true, it grouped the minority together with the majority. While most Jews may not have listened to him, there where certainly some that would listen to him. We must always be extremely careful never to make all inclusive statements that pass judgement on everyone when they only apply to most everyone. (It’s quite common for some people to make blanket statements that pass judgement on an entire group even though their brilliant comments may only be valid or apply to part of the group) This lesson is not only one that Pharoh was taught but is something for all of us to remember. Throughout history. G-d has sent out his messengers which do His bidding with deadly accuracy. That’s why no angel is given two jobs. There is no limit to the amount of Angels at His command and therefore why not give them all an opportunity to serve their Creator. When the Roman general Titus dared challenge G-d’s might, Hashem sent out a small fly to do battle with him. It made him suffer in horrid agony for many years until it finally destroyed his brain. And so today too, Hashem sends out His messengers to every remote corner of the earth. Probably the smallest of all His messengers is the deadly virus. For thousands of years these messengers have been invisible. It was only in recent years that scientists have discovered this tiniest of all of G-d’s messengers.

Every time we catch a cold or get some other sickness we hear someone saying that it’s probably a virus, yet most of us know very little about what a virus is, how it spreads, and how we can get rid of it. While we may know that many sicknesses are caused by some very small germs called bacteria, other illnesses are caused by something far smaller and much more deadly called a virus. While bacteria are very small indeed, and can only be seen with the use of a microscope, viruses are far smaller and can only be seen by using a special microscope called an electron microscope that can enlarge things more than a billion times. If we’d put a virus next to a bacterium, the bacterium would look like a mountain in comparison. One can put a billion viruses on the tip of a needle and there would still be plenty of space between them. In fact, they are so small that they defy our imagination. Even the largest virus is billions of times smaller than a speck of dust.

Actually a virus is such a strange creature that scientists are not sure whether to call it dead or alive. That’s because sometimes it acts as if it were as dead as a stone, while other times it acts as if were truly alive. This very strange creature sometimes displays the properties of the living, while at other times it displays the properties of the dead. Viruses come in all shapes and sizes and contain different types of genetic material inside. Yet, as small as it is, it can be far more deadly than even an atom bomb. A few drops of anthrax virus spread in the air is enough to kill billions of people. This is why we are so concerned with biological warfare. America is afraid that some mad scientist will make some deadly virus with which he can terrorize the world. The world is afraid that some crazy dictator will make the anthrax virus and use it to threaten the world. Just take a look at what is happening with the foot and mouth virus that is spreading like wildfire all over Europe. Each day, more and more animals are being killed in order to prevent this deadly animal disease from spreading. In England many farms have been sealed off and forests and nature trails have been closed. Just stepping on the virus can cause it to attach itself to one’s shoes, which can easily transfer it to a person entering the USA.

While scientists have discovered antibiotics that are able to cure diseases caused by bacteria, they have still not discovered any medication that can kill a virus. Luckily Hashem has created something that’s in our bodies called anti-bodies. When our immune system detects an antigen, it produces antibodies that bind to the antigen. If not for these antibodies that the body is able to make, the first time we’d catch a cold it would chas v’shalom remain with us for the rest of our lives. While scientists have discovered that a cold is actually caused by a virus, so far no one has found any medication that can cure the common cold. While there may be hundreds of medications you can buy in the drug store that claim that they can relieve the symptoms of a cold and make you feel a little better, none of them can actually cure it. The scientist who can discover some type of cure for a cold will certainly make billions of dollars.

The only thing we can do about a virus is try and prevent it from harming our bodies before it actually attacks us. We do that by giving a person something we call a vaccine. This vaccine is able to arouse the body to make anti-virus chemicals that are able to recognize a virus when it dares enter the body, and will seek it out and kill it along with the cell in which it is hiding, before the virus does any irreparable damage.

It was first an English physician by the name of Edward Jenner who in 1796 learned this clever trick of vaccinating the body so that it can learn how to kill the virus.

The story of this startling discovery began with a very well known disease called smallpox. The only reason you may not have heard anything about it is because it has nearly been wiped out from the face of the Earth. Years ago, this disease was just as common as the cold but caused more trouble. People would get lots of small pox all over their body, which looked like measles or chicken pox. Sometimes people would die from them, while other times it would heal but leave ugly scars all over the face and the rest of the body. Everyone could catch this disease, the poor or the rich, the ugly or the handsome, yet you only caught it once. After that, one’s body seemed to recognize this villain and would fight it off on its own.

Edward Jenner noticed something very strange about it. He noticed that people who milked the cows would sometimes also get a similar type of disease called cowpox. This disease seemed to be much milder in nature and didn’t leave any scars at all. He also noticed that any person who got cowpox never developed small pox later. It seemed to him that once the body had learned how to fight off and recognize cow pox, it could also recognize small pox. “Perhaps if we could therefore make people sick with cow pox, they would never get the worse form of small pox,” he theorized. To test his clever theory and see if it would work, he took a needle and stuck it into a person who had cow pox. He then took this same needle and pricked another person with it. Sure enough this person soon developed cow pox. He now tried pricking this same person with a needle that had been infected with small pox and noticed that he was right. This person was now immune and wouldn’t get small pox.

Eureka! He had discovered a way of vaccinating a person with a very mild form of a disease which now would protect him from a much deadlier form of a very similar disease. He tried it out on many thousands of people and it always worked. He, of course, had no idea as to why it worked. As long as it worked, people were quite ready to try it out. And so today, thanks to Jenner, this terrible disease has nearly been wiped out from the face of the earth. Unfortunately, many others have taken its place.

Another once well known disease caused by a virus is called polio. Thanks to a vaccine given to children at birth, it has now nearly been completely wiped out.. Actually there are two different ways to make this vaccine. Doctor Jonas Salk learned to make it with a dead strain of the virus which he injected into the body. Doctor Albert Sabin learned how to inject a live but crippled polio virus into the body. Both viruses seem to be able to do the job, are given to all children at birth. Boruch Hashem, this most devastating paralyzing disease has now almost been wiped out and we rarely hear of any cases of it. Another horrid sickness caused by a virus is rabies. This can be spread by a warm bloodied animal that is infected with it. It can be spread by a bite or even by a lick of an open wound. It was Louis Pasteur that learned how to weaken this virus and inject the body with a weakened form of it. Thanks to his brilliant discovery, many lives have been saved. And so, anytime a virus disease begins to make its rounds, scientists are immediately busy trying to find and prepare some type of vaccine that will immunize the body and prevent the disease from spreading. The only problem is that viruses can change their identity very easily. The Influenza virus of this year may look just a little different than the influenza virus that made its rounds last year, and therefore the vaccine too must be constantly changed.

The problem scientists are having in making a vaccine that will prevent the common cold virus is that the cold virus can be caused by many different types of viruses that look very much the same but are slightly different. The body that has learned how to recognize one of these viruses doesn’t seem to be able to recognize his twin brothers.

It seemed rather strange that such a small virus can be so dangerous and cause so much trouble until we began to find out how a virus operates. A virus acts like a hypodermic needle. While its outside shell is just a harmless protein, its inside fluid contains a liquid which is similar to a cell’s DNA or RNA. This chemical is what contains the instructions that tells cells what they should produce. The virus seems to have some type of way to attach itself to a cell and then squirt this dangerous chemical inside of it. Once the virus DNA gets inside the cell, we have what’s called a viral infection and that’s when strange thing begins to happen. The virus now takes control of the cell’s manufacturing process and begins to manufacture viruses instead. It’s something like a bandit that breaks into a car manufacturing factory and forces the people to stop producing what they were making and produce clones of himself instead. Sometimes the cell will produce about three hundred copies of this virus and then burst open and spill its dangerous contents all over the place. ( This process is called lysis.) These three hundred new viruses continue on and try to access other adjoining cells. It isn’t long before the virus takes control of thousand of cells, destroying them in the process. The poliomyelitis virus may even have as many as one million copies of its basic genetic material called RNA inside a single, infected (intestinal mucosal) human cell. Unless the body is able to recognizes this clever imposter (virus), the results can be devastating!

Sometimes a virus leaves the cell by a process called “budding” which means that only a few of them leave the cell at one time.

A bacterium and a virus are very different. While a bacterium is an independently-living organism, a virus cannot survive in the absence of a living cell. It is only inside a living cell that it comes alive and is able to sythesize clones of itself. We call this process replication. While doctors can use antibiotics to kill a bacterium, they will not harm a virus in the least.

Actually, humans are not the only ones that can be infected by a virus. Plants, animals, bacteria and in fact every living cell can be infected by these viruses. Usually a virus is very specific. This means that an animal virus will only infect a certain animal, and a plant virus will only infect a particular type of plant. The smallpox virus only infects humans while the influenza virus can also infect certain kinds of animals.

The first virus that was ever discovered was in the leaf of a tobacco plant and was called the Tobacco Mosaic Virus. Farmers noticed that their tobacco leaves were getting ruined by very tiny holes that were appearing on them and spoiling their tobacco leaves. Soon this plant disease began to spread to all their tobacco plants causing the farmers to lose millions of dollars in sales. They checked the leaves very carefully but couldn’t find any type of insect or bug that caused the disease, so they had no idea how this invisible killer spread from tree leaf to tree leaf. Certainly there must be a way that this mysterious disease is spread. Scientists began to squeeze out the liquid of the diseased leaves and rub it onto other non-diseased leaves and sure enough the new leaves suddenly began to catch the disease. That meant that there was some poison inside the squeezed out juice that was able to spread the disease. They therefore began to filter the juice and then wipe the filtered clean liquid that emerged onto uninfected leaves to see what would happen. They were surprised to find that this supposedly clean juice still contained the poison. Yet this juice seemed to be clean and pure. It didn’t seem to contain anything. The only possible answer was that this poison must be so small that it could pass through the filter and was too small to be seen. They therefore called this poison a “virus” which means poison in Latin. It was only many years later with the invention of the electron microscope that scientists would finally be able to see this deadly killer and prove that their theory had been correct.

One of the most dangerous viruses making the rounds nowadays and killing millions is called the HIV virus (Human Immunodeficiency Virus.) This virus attacks the bodies cells that are able to produce the chemicals needed to kill bacteria and viruses. The body’s defense system is destroyed and now open for any disease-causing invader to enter and destroy it. It’s like killing the security guard that protects us. Many times a virus can hide in the body cells without us knowing it is there. Only much later does it come out of hiding and start causing trouble. What makes it come out of its hiding place? Scientists still are not sure of the answer. Perhaps someday they will find out.

Yet, while scientists may not know the answer, Jews have known the answer for a very long time. The story of what happened in Mitzrayim should give us a clue. G-d has a powerful army that stands ready to do His bidding. Sometimes He sends frogs, lice, wild animals, locusts or the angel of death. We must always realize that Hashem has billions of messengers that stand ready to do His bidding. If we kill one of His messengers, He can always chas v’shalom send another one our way. The only way we can truly get rid of them for good is by doing G-d’s will. As long as we keep the Torah and do His mitzvos, the Torah assures us that all the sicknesses that Hashem brought upon the Egyptians will not come upon us. Only by listening to His voice will we be assured that the virus will remain dead and not come to life! May we all merit many years of good health.