פרשת תצוה, תש״פ
Parshat T'tzaveh, 5780
by Rabbi Sydni
Saturday, March 7th, 2020
Pikuah Nefesh in the Time of Coronavirus
Note: A week and a half after this sermon was given, all Agudath Achim services and events moved to an online platform, in order to support “safer at home” protocols.
When I was a little kid, I read a picture book called Germs Make Make Me Sick, a book that displayed pictures of different kinds of viruses and bacteria and detailed how they work in the body. After reading that book, I spent the next couple of years as one of those hand-washing kids. Before I ate, after I touched a public surface or gave a hug, and every time I passed the kitchen or restroom, I would spend minutes at the sink, trying to get rid of all the germs I had taken on. Eventually, I grew out of the practice - it was time consuming, socially awkward, and it completely dried out my hands. While I certainly don’t condone taking hygiene to such extremes, now is a good time to lightly remind ourselves that germs can make us sick. Louisiana does not currently have any reported cases of Novel Coronavirus, COVID-19, and yet, as the virus spreads, we must heighten our awareness of our every-day actions both at home and in communal spaces such as Agudath Achim.
As members of the Jewish tradition, our responsibility to lessen the spread of the virus is all the more pronounced. We are all bound by the value of pikuah nefesh, saving a life, as more important than almost any other mitzvah. את משפטי תעשו ואת חקתי תשמרו, God says in the book of Leviticus (18:5). You shall keep My laws and My rules. אשר יעשה אותם האדם וחי בהם. By the pursuit of which a person shall live. All of the commandments and traditions we are given have been bestowed upon us so that our lives and the lives of those around us can be enhanced and extended. While the Novel Coronavirus is not any more dangerous to individuals than the seasonal flu, it does tend to spread more quickly than the flu. And just like the flu, even though relatively young, healthy individuals tend to experience only mild to moderate symptoms, individuals who are over seventy or have existing health issues are at a higher risk. Even if you are not worried about your own health, please keep in mind the health of friends, family, and community members. Remember the oft-repeated Mishnaic saying: to save one life is to save an entire world.
Just remembering - just keeping in mind - is not enough. To know what actions are necessary, we must turn to the professionals. This room often contains a whole lot of healthcare professionals who can help you with specifics, and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) website can give you even more information for how to stay safe. One of the first common suggestions directly parallels a well-known Talmudic dictum - If one is sick on Yom Kippur, she only eats if medical experts give the okay. Just as a sick person is exempt from fasting on Yom Kippur, I am telling you now that if you feel at all sick, unless your doctor tells you otherwise, you are exempt from coming to Shabbat services. Yes, we will miss you, but at the same time, your staying at home is both better for your health and will help prevent other community members from getting sick. (Besides, happenings like Novel Coronavirus just give us more incentive to start streaming services sooner!)
A second common suggestion is to be more mindful about both hand washing and how we use our hands. Hopefully, we all wash our hands regularly already, but do we all take the time to wash our hands every single time before we eat or every time we come home from being out in the world? Do we all count to twenty each time we wash our hands? I have heard that singing the chorus to BeeGees’ “Stayin’ Alive” or the Happy Birthday song two times over can be more fulfilling than counting to twenty. Today, I will ask that everyone either washes their hands or uses the hand sanitizer on the front table before indulging in our wonderful oneg tonight and Kiddush lunch tomorrow. To ensure limited contact, I will also ask that you refrain from using your hands to pick up food at the oneg. We have spatulas out for all of the cookies, and if that process gets fiddly, you can always use a napkin.
It is also vital that we keep in mind that because of limited national resources, testing for Novel Coronavirus can take quite a long time. One study estimates that the Seattle outbreak went undetected for between five and six weeks. Just because Louisiana has not detected any cases yet does not mean we are not at risk. Please, make sure to have a family plan and household supplies in order just in case, has v’shalom (God forbid), isolation ever becomes a reality. And please, do not buy face masks unless you work in health care or are already sick; leave our country’s limited supply to those in need.
Only three mitzvot supersede pikuah nefesh - not to murder, not to adulter, and not to worship idols. The last thing I will ask you today is not to worship the idols of fear and panic for the sake of health. Being prepared does not have to mean washing hands to the point of cracked skin. Being prepared does not have to mean shunning all contact with the outside world. This outbreak of COVID-19, Novel Coronavirus, can instead act as a reminder for us to re-embrace the importance of pikuah nefesh, of continuing to live our lives in ways that protect ourselves and the people we love. Through positive actions of pikuah nefesh, we ensure that we are able to continue embracing God’s creation both inside our homes and out in community.