The Man Who Sneezed (A Fictional Short)

The Man Who Sneezed 

My name is Zhang Wei, I am 41 years old and I live in Wuhan, China. I am writing this to share my difficult journey of the past year. Over the past many months, I have been accused of many crimes, I have been shamed, othered, mocked, cursed and more.

Let me give you a little background. I am an ordinary man from a small remote village in Central China. I got a basic education and got average grades throughout my years of schooling. Since there is little financial opportunity in my village and given my very average education even less opportunity, I decided to try my luck in Wuhan, where I hoped to find a job where I could make a basic living and support a small family. 

I tried many different things, however ultimately nothing really panned out so I went into hospitality management. That is a fancy way of saying that I do the laundry for the towels at one of the big hotels in town that hosts many international travelers. While I am not famous or well known, I do take a lot of pride in my work and my ability to support my family. 

Jobs are hard to come by here and my income is a little more than the national average, roughly $10,000 USD a year. I live in a small house not far from the wet market in Wuhan, where my wife of 15 years raises our two children and keeps house.

I have been doing this for over a decade and while my life is not particularly special, I am a happy person and I like my life. I never aspired to have major wealth or accomplish anything super noteworthy. I am happy with my lot in life. A wife, two children and a salary that pays my bills. We don’t live extravagant lives, and I save money here and there where and when I can. 

And this where the trouble started. I heard there was a sale on some lower end meats at the wet market and I decided to treat our normally vegetarian family to some inexpensive meat as a special treat. I purchased a package of combined meats, basically the scraps of larger cuts of meat all mixed together and I figured my wife would be able to make stew or something that would be a tasty delicacy for our family.

My wife worked her magic and we had a wonderful dinner that night. My stomach started to gurgle a few hours later but I chalked it up to my body not being used to meat and tried to ignore that. 

The next day I wasn’t feeling well but I couldn’t afford to take off too many days off of work so I went to work and hoped that this was just a cold and that it would go away. It didn’t. In fact it got worse and now I was coughing, having a hard time breathing and I felt like I had a bad case of the flu. 

I went to the local clinic for a check up and they told me that in fact it was probably the flu and they told me to rest up and drink lots of fluids. I did what I was told and even though my breathing was quite difficult and I didn’t think that was associated with the flu, and my fever spiked quite high, after a couple of weeks.

In that time I tried to go to work as often as I had the strength, but my boss who saw me sneezing and coughing all over the towels as I was folding them, was concerned that some foreigner staying at the hotel would complain so he told me to go home until I felt better. I did finally feel better and thankfully my job was still waiting for me when I returned.

What I didn’t know was that that in that package of meat that I ate a few weeks prior, was some virus that the meat vendor wasn’t aware of and that I became patient zero for what was quickly becoming a national pandemic. It seemed as if everyone in my city was now sick. The authorities were closing down the stores and ordering everyone to stay at home in an effort to stop the spread of this strange virus. Apparently, this virus was now considered “airborne” meaning that it could be transmitted simply by someone breathing, sneezing or coughing in the vicinity. 

In fact, over the course of the next few months it seems that my virus now spread to the whole world. Flights stopped going in or out of the country, stores were closed, businesses stopped, it was as if the whole world just grinded to a halt!

It was truly a strange time, and while I felt terrible about my part in all of this, it really hurt my feelings to have people talking about me as if I was some crazy or strange person. Why was everyone blaming me for just living my life and trying to work and feed my family? I found it almost laughable that they could somehow think that this whole catastrophe was my fault?

I am, as I said earlier, just a simple person trying to live a normal life. I am a nobody. I am not very powerful at all. I could count all the people that I know on my hands and feet. If you met me, I wouldn’t make much of an impression on you. I look average, I am just an average Zhang.

As the lockdowns continued and the world seemed to spin off its axis, I started to secretly feel a bit differently. I had always thought that my whole life would pass and no one would take any notice of me. Suddenly, I was the most talked about person in the world. True, it wasn’t in a positive light, but for the first time in my life I realized that I mattered. I didn’t intend on becoming infamous, in fact I don’t think I actually even did anything wrong at all. 

What did become clear to me was that all this talk about our world being interconnected was really true. If an unknown and unnamed man – me – in China could shut down the whole world, clearly our lives and existences are more intertwined than we ever knew.

I only wish that my virus was somehow a good virus. Imagine it was a virus that somehow cured cancer? There would be no one left on the planet that would have to feel the pain and suffering and loss of that horrible disease! If only I was able to work in some kind of lab where they could have infected me with something positive that would spread like this pandemic did except instead of spreading disease, illness, death, sadness, pain and suffering it would spread health, recovery, life, happiness, joy and celebration.

Alas, fantasy’s are only real in the movies. Or so I thought.

It struck me, if I could have unintentionally caused so much havoc around the world, imagine how much goodness I could cause if I was actively and purposefully intending to impact the world. 

Sure, I don’t have the medium of an airborne virus, but I do have other mediums that could go viral (pun intended). I could use my social media platforms to spread goodness and kindness. I could actually do something that matters and can, in fact, impact the whole world. I simply need to be creative in making it happen.

I heard of something called the butterfly effect. I am googling it and found that while it is debated if it is actually true and can impact the weather, the concept is most certainly true. Whether it is carbon emissions affecting the ozone layer and global warming or random acts of kindness and the concept of paying it forward does travel forward.

I think my takeaway from all those who are hating on me and Wuhan shaming and bat shaming me is that while I didn’t have bad intentions, in fact I didn’t have any intentions and yet so much still happened, then if I do have intentions and do try to impact the whole world I know that I can. You would be better off of learning from my unfortunate experience than hating on me for it.

The End.


Zhang Wei ultimately lost his job due to the downturn in the local economy. Foreigners were not visiting and the hospitality industry was crushed and along with it Zhang’s job.

Zhang decided to go back to school and use his newfound knowledge and existential realization that he really can impact the world. More importantly his realization that while he thought that he was a nobody that didn’t matter and in fact he was a somebody that really did matter, he was committed to really making a difference.

He graduated from state university with high honors and became a scientist in the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention based in Beijing. There he worked for 7 years on a vaccine for cancer and in fact he was successful. His work was speedily approved by all international governmental agencies that monitor vaccine development and became a standard vaccine given to children inoculating them from cancer for the rest of their lives. 

He received the nobel prize for his cure for cancer and in his acceptance speech he pointed to the Great Pandemic of 2020 as the catalyst for this great development.

He lived till 109, surrounded by generation of family including tens of grandchildren, even more great grandchildren and even a newborn great-great grandchild.

How We Will MAKE 2021 Better

So many of us are getting ready to kiss – while masked of course – 2020 goodbye and welcome in 2021 that is sure to bring new hope and optimism and goodness that was so sorely lacking in 2020.

2020 brought pain and devastation to so many. So many untimely deaths, job losses, destruction to our economy impacting everyone on some level. Somehow, though, we are of this mindset that when the clock strikes midnight on New years eve, somehow that will just all turn around and the dawn of January 1st will usher in a new era of healing happiness and health!

Why? Should the movement on a clock suddenly change everything? The pandemic should still theoretically need to run its course (of course vaccinations are on their way, but that was true in December already), the gears of a crushed economy need to grind back into action, jobs and incomes need to be repaired and repatriated. Those broken by loss and illness sill need to contend with that pain and heal. 

So why will 2021 be the savior that will make everything better? It is an inanimate movement of time, not a spiritual or physical stimulus that should be able to independently change anything?


There is a concept that I’ve taught tens of Bar mitzvah boys over the years as I’ve prepared them for the Rosh Chodesh Torah Readings. In ancient times, the new Jewish month would only begin when two witnesses testified that they saw the birth of a new moon. If the two witnesses were found to be correct, then Rosh Chodesh – the new month – began.

 Why would G-d command such a strange system to establish the new month? Why couldn’t he just say, “look at the calendar?” In fact, later Hillel the great sage did in fact compile a calendar and we do use a calendar to determine the next month. However, that calendar was only instituted since the original witness system was in jeopardy of being able to continue. The original system was a biblical mandated system so there must be a really good reason for this strange way of knowing when the new month began?

He did this in order to teach us a lesson.

First of all, it is to teach us that things in life don’t JUST HAPPEN. Just like the new Jewish month doesn’t just happen, because the clock struck midnight of the 1st day of the month, but rather people had to witness and testify to the new month’s arrival, so too in our lives. 

The sun and the moon exist because G-d made them exist. My house, clothes and food happen because my parents bought them, prepared them, and gave them to me. My dirty socks and clothing that I threw in the corner of my bedroom, didn’t just launder itself and fold itself and put itself back in my drawers. There is a loving mother or father behind it, even if not seen that made that miracle happen. 

This lesson is taught by the Rosh Chodesh System.

When one is younger they might think things just happened on their own. As they get older, they might think that any goodness that happens is their own brilliance and has nothing to do with Divine blessing. The Rosh Chodesh system teaches us that even a new month, which we’d think would just happen on its own without any input from me, simply with the passage of time still cannot begin as a new month unless witnesses take the time to testify that they’ve seen and thus all will acknowledge that it happened.

Things don’t just happen. We need to make them happen. On a most practical level that means doing what we can in our power to be involved in making our destiny a better one. If it means creating a vaccine or perhaps securing a vaccine for myself and family or simply practicing safe behaviors and masks to keep myself and others safe.

On a more spiritual level it means recognizing that the sun doesn’t just rise in the west and set in the east and take that for granted. I need to recognize that each time this happens it is an active miracle that Gd chose to do for me personally again today. 

We have a tendency to take ongoing miracles for granted and assume that they are now the new normal AKA nature. However, even nature, in Hebrew “Hateva” has the same numeric value as the Divine name for Gd, “Elokim.” Which is a name of Gd that hints at concealed/restricted revelation, but no less Gdly than an open miracle. 

In fact, we say it in our daily prayer המחדש בטובו בכל יום תמיד מעשה בראשית   “who creates in His goodness, daily the acts of creation” i.e. that each day He re-creates from scratch what we just assume will be created again.

So too, in my opinion, can be said for this move to 2021. Sure the vaccine rollout is in process, and stimulus package/s are on their way. However, they will not on their own make 2021 better.

To make 2021 better we have to actually do something to make that happen. Like the affixing of a new month doesn’t just happen, witnesses must seek out the birth a new moon, and have their sighting affirmed by the Bet Din, so too, the simple moving passage of time, moving of the dial of the clock beyond midnight of December 31st, and the dropping of the ball will not make it a better year.

We need to work on the three A’s.

Attitude, action and acknowledgement.

Having the right attitude towards what has happened in the year gone by and realize that the Puppeteer in Chief was moving the marionettes and nothing that happens is random.

Taking action by working towards a better year and improving our connection to the one above, through increased prayer, Torah Study and Mitzva observance.

Acknowledging that we are but pawns in the Divine master plan and notwithstanding the hardship and suffering of 2020, recognizing that there were many blessings and silver linings amongst the challenges.

Then in fact 2021 will usher in a year of health healing and happiness.

Gives a whole new meaning to ringing in the New Year!

2021 won’t be better, we will make 2021 better.

If These Candles Could Speak

If These Candles Could Speak oh what a story they would tell.

They would tell of a time gone by when light was impossible to come by. Not only because the oil wasn’t available due to the attack of the Greek Hellenists on our holy Temple, but because the ethereal concept of light was under attack. The secularist society of the time had no space for optimistic and therefore religious expression.

They’d tell how against all odds a small band of disrupters would simply not accept the status quo. They’d fight back against the war-on-light and they pursue all avenues to procure the critical cruise of possibility. 

If these candles could speak they’d relate how this battle replays itself again and again throughout history. 

They’d tell of a time during the crusades, pogroms, and the Holocaust where the “Greeks” of that era continued to propose darkness as a solution in place of light. Death and destruction were the energy dejour or so they hoped. Yet, lamplighter after lamplighter refused to accept this verdict. It was – among others – Victor Frankl in Auschwitz or Rabbi Y.M. Lau the youngest survivor of Buchenwald and the countless other Rebbes and ordinary people who would not allow their spirit to be snuffed out. They were the Chanukah heroes in their day. 

If these candles could speak they’d talk about a generation of incredible material abundance where the Greek’s dejour wasn’t a nation or a tribe rather a society they told us that hedonism (modern day Hellenism) is the “light” to be worshiped. It told us that we should worship Teslas and our body shapes, our social status “uber alles.” How many friends on any social platforms do we have and how many likes do we get, telling us that this is light and disconnecting and being at peace internally is not woke and is a darkness. It attempted to tell us that vanity is real and authenticity is false. 

Yet the miracle of Chanukah was that we refused to accept society’s norms and real and allowed the Torah’s timeless wisdom to be our oil and guiding light.  

If these candles could speak they’d share how in 2020 during an unprecedented pandemic where all seemed dark, people’s absolute best came out. Like the pure oil made only from the very first drop of the squeezed olive our unprecedented best was exposed. Kindness that we didn’t even know we beheld arose to the surface. 

We shopped for others, we fed one another, we clothed and paid bills for those who were hurting. Each of us in our own way, led our “small armies” into battle and victory over a world illness that threatened to overwhelm us and snuff out our selflessness. 

When push comes to shove, these candles are telling us that history simply repeats itself again and again. It changes shapes and flavors and manifests itself uniquely for the attempted darkness of that time. In the end, if there is a will, then the small army, the underdog can always, and will always prevail over the many – the darkness that threatens to redirect us from our truest mission of light, love and healing.

These candles do speak, for eight nights and days they have the megaphone and they sing this message of hope at their top of their waxy lungs.

Are we open to hearing their song?