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Saving a Life, Vaccinated or Unvaccinated - Shoftim 5781

August 14, 2021

Recently, I have heard variations of the following statement on social media and in passing conversation: “Hospitals should just refuse medical treatment to those who aren’t vaccinated. That’ll teach them a lesson.” It sends chills down my spine every time I hear it. Yes, the Delta variant is tragic and terrifying. Yes, it is frustrating that we have to mask up and watch our distance again, that scheduled events are beginning to disappear again. Yes, there are scientific arguments to be made that much of this surge stems from our community’s dangerously low percentage of vaccinated individuals. And yet, we come from a religious tradition in which we are obligated to love the other as ourselves. We come from a tradition whose holiest texts tell us that losing or saving one life is equivalent to losing or saving an entire world. Our tradition does not teach us to love or save the other as long as they make sensible life choices, as long as they agree with us, or as long as they have enough funds to pay. Whether we like it or not, whether it is easy or takes an enormous amount of work, we are obligated to provide healthcare - the opportunity for life - to every single person in our midst.

In a part of Parashat Shoftim that occurs after Rabbi Feivel’s reading today, Moshe presents the procedure for what should happen if someone is found dead out in the open. A group of priests and the elders of the closest town perform a ritual that involves breaking the neck of a heifer and washing hands of guilt. After the ritual, the elders ask for God’s forgiveness: 

ידינו לא שפכו את הדם הזה ועינינו לא ראו. כפר לעמך ישראל אשר פדית ה׳ ואל תתן דם נקי בקרב עמך ישראל

Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Absolve, Adonai, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel (Deuteronomy 21:7-8). 

The town elders know that they are responsible for the death of this anonymous person who was found in the field. As they were not physically involved in the bloodshed, and as they were not present to witness it, the elders’ absence and neglect were part of the reason that that bloodshed happened. They must acknowledge that the way they run their society leads directly to the kind of environment in which this can happen. As medieval Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra writes, “If it were not for the deeds that led to this, it would not have happened that a person could have been killed so close to them… It was their mistake that they did not watch their dangerous roads.” If we look closer at our verse, responsibility for the anonymous death expands even wider; the elders ask forgiveness not just for themselves but for the entire people Israel. Through the models they set, the ways they look out for one another, and the leaders they appoint, the people Israel are just as responsible as the unknown murderer himself. So too, regardless of what we know about each individual who experiences COVID, we are responsible for each life and death in our midst.

Now, as the Delta variant picks up speed, we must keep acting on what we believe to the benefit of both ourselves and those around us. We wear our masks, and we keep cautious in public places. We get creative and compassionate in the ways in which we try to convince people who can get vaccinated to get vaccinated or put on a mask. As some of us discussed in last Sunday’s meeting about constructive disagreement, we exercise respect, we try to understand what motivates the other, we present the facts, and we critique actions rather than individuals. Remember that for various reasons, including age, health condition, and an inability to risk time off of work, not everyone is able to get the vaccine. Ultimately, we do our best to show the care that underlies our questions and our pleas.

At the same time, we stand up for ourselves as well; we recognize that pikuah nefesh, saving a life, has to be weighed in multiple directions. If you feel unsafe inviting over a friend or family member who is not vaccinated or does not want to wear a mask, that is your prerogative. If you own a private business, it may be your prerogative to limit those in your building to people who are vaccinated, or as Louisiana law states, masked. And as a customer, you have the ability to choose whether or not to shop in businesses that defy the mask mandate. Your actions towards staying safe not only benefit yourself, but also, those from whom you may try to isolate. Just as we are responsible for healing the other, we are also responsible for preventing the other’s illness or death.

For decades to come, we will speak about what was learned and gained from over a year of COVID-19, and I hope that part of our lesson will be our responsibility for each other’s health. If we are wearing masks and getting vaccinated for the benefit of those around us now, how else can we restructure our society to prevent the guilt of future illness and death in our midst? And when someone becomes sick or dies, how can we make sure that they are cared for, knowing that we have a stake in their wellness and their legacy? How will our experience during this pandemic affect the personal ways in which we help those around us, as well as the ways in which we vote?

As I have taught from this bimah many times before, כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה - all of Israel is intertwined with one another. Now more than ever, it is becoming clear that this Talmudic teaching expands beyond the people of Israel - when we thrive, our neighbors thrive, and when we fall, they fall too. Quite literally, during COVID times, our own health depends on the health of those around us, a reality that begs compassion for each person we meet. My greatest hope after the fear of COVID subsides is that we never forget the importance of that knowledge, that each and every one of us, regardless of status or belief, deserves care, and ultimately, life. Shabbat Shalom.

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784