The Holiness in Protecting Ourselves and Each Other
Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the man who lives by the river. He hears a radio report that a storm is coming. The river is going to rush up and flood the town. All the residents should evacuate their homes. But the man says, “It’s in God’s hands; God will save me.” The waters rise up, and the man climbs to the roof. A woman in a row boat comes along and shouts, “Hey, hey you! You in there. The town is flooding. Let me take you to safety.” But the man shouts back, “God will save me.” A helicopter hovers overhead. And a guy with a megaphone shouts, “Hey you, you down there. The town is flooding. Let me drop this ladder, and I’ll take you to safety.” But the man shouts back that it is in God’s hands; God will save him. What happens to the man?… Well… the man drowns. And standing at the gates to heaven, he asks God: “Why did this happen? I waited for You to save me!” God says, “I sent you a radio report, a row boat, and a helicopter. The rest was in your hands!”
I don’t think the original source on this one was Jewish, but it certainly expresses a key Jewish idea: God’s work, is in our hands. With gratitude for the covid-19 vaccine accessibility, I am thinking of all of those worldwide who do not have access to the vaccine. When we who do have access take responsibility for getting our vaccine, we do God’s work in protecting ourselves and protecting others, especially the most vulnerable among us.
And that responsibility is clear in Jewish thought. Our tradition’s elevation of multiple views creates a big tent of ideas, practices, and people. Our sages teach “Elu ‘elu divrei Elohim Chayim/these and these are the words of the living God.” For they are l’shem shamayim/for the sake of the heavens. There is more than one way, more than one truth. But not every way, not every idea. There are some positions that that are not l’shem shamayim/for the sake of the heavens. In Jewish thought: there is no space for the anti-vaccination stance.
An anti-vaccination position is different from fear of something new or reluctance keeping one from being the first on line (although we were certainly the first on line when it was our turn!). Anti-vaccination is the refusal to be vaccinated despite one’s health status. Judaism is not in conflict with science, and the science on vaccinations is clear.
For all of us whose personal health, according to our physician, allows for vaccination, it is a mitzvah, in the original sense of the word: a Jewish obligation. It is an obligation not only for our own sake but also for the sake of all of those in our community who have a medical condition that prevents them from being vaccinated; we are called to our responsibility to those whose health status makes them vulnerable! Perhaps, in the Reform Jewish community, we don’t speak enough about obligation. In the case of vaccination, we are obligated in two ways: we are obligated to ourselves, and we are obligated to our society. God’s work is in our hands.
Providing a foundation for Jewish tradition’s teaching of pekuach nefesh, preserving a life, the Torah commands us to “Be careful and watch yourselves.” The Talmud understands this to mean that we are obligated to avoid danger. The expectation for self-protection, goes beyond avoidance. The Torah also commands we build a parapet on our roof; the guardrail is a pro-active obligation to prevent harm. God’s work is in our hands.
Almost every denomination of Judaism has worked together throughout this year and urges Covid-19 social distancing and vaccination. We have shared research and practices with Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox leadership, and across many non-Jewish faith traditions as well. The Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly offered an important teaching from the research of Rabbi David Ruderman, about the application of our relevant texts in Jewish history.
In the 19th century, there was debate among Jewish authorities, about the risk of introducing a small amount of smallpox into a healthy person. Rabbi Israel Lipschutz was an enthusiastic supporter of the vaccine; he wrote that the infinitesimal risk, is appropriate against the much greater risk of contracting the illness. A bit earlier, Abraham ben Solomon of Hamburg published a letter in London in 1785. Himself mourning the death of his two sons to smallpox, his letter was a passionate argument for inoculation against it. Smallpox was a leading cause of death in Europe in the 18th century, where an estimated 400,000 people died annually. With clear relevance to covid-19 today, he argued: smallpox was so widespread, and so contagious, that everyone should be considered at risk, and therefore the benefit of the vaccine, even one that is new and without a long track record, as the vaccine was at the time, outweighed its risk.
Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise, the founder of modern Reform Judaism in America, who had, in the 1870’s in the time of Yellow Fever, been advocating for the need for government to invest in understanding and addressing the epidemic, and for citizens to donate tzedakah to those most hurt by the epidemic – for then, much like now, citizens did not struggle equitably—Rabbi Wise reflected on the losses and also on the promise of our hands, with these words:
Many an aching breast today bemoans the loss of what was nearest and dearest; many a heart that beat high and brave is stilled forever; hands that never tired of doing good are idly folded… But still above all the misery, above all the desolation, there loomed forth the rainbow of promise in the gloomy sky, the tangible evidence of the innate nobility of humanity. Human beings, not one, not a hundred, but thousands, were found who gave willing service to the cause of humanity.
Eager to reach herd immunity, to protect the most vulnerable among us, and to gather in-person, in our acts of social distancing, hybrid gathering, and vaccination, may we sense, the holiness, the mitzvah, and the rainbow of promise. God’s work is in our hands.
Delivered on Shabbat, April 30, 2021
Rabbi Jill L. Maderer, Congregation Rodeph Shalom