Today is 04/16/2021 -
“If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”
With all of us having, at times, to decide how to allocate our time and other precious resources, I find that I am frequently either asking this question of myself or offering it as a response to a congregant, family member, or friend.
With the unique challenge posed by the Covid-19 pandemic this past year in our country, Hillel’s question has become as profound and relevant in a societal context as it has consistently been in a personal or individual one.
Purporting to invoke the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, millions of Americans, this past year, have refused to wear masks and socially distance, despite the clear and unequivocal medical and scientific evidence demonstrating that both are highly effective ways to limit the spread of the contagious Covid-19 virus. Following the constitutional arguments made by those opposed to submitting to the measle vaccine, a significant percentage of the U.S. population have indicated, moreover, that they will not submit to the Covid-19 vaccine, when it is available, even if their refusal to do so will make overcoming the spread and limiting the morbidity and mortality of the virus far more difficult.
It is not my intent in this article to engage in a debate on the constitutional questions raised by the mask and socially distancing protesters and the “anti-vaxxers,” but to instead examine how the Jewish Tradition has historically weighed and balanced the rights of the individual with the best interest of the community as a whole. Fortunately, this exact question is addressed by one of the Jewish community’s most respected scholars, authors and humanitarians, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z.l., in his most recent book, “Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.”
Rabbi Sacks opens his discussion from the perspective of the humanitarian person that he was, a person who strongly believed in the biblical admonition that all human beings are created in “the image of the Divine” and are thus entitled to be treated with respect and dignity at all times. Echoing a rationale similar to that offered by the “founding fathers” of our own country in incorporating a “Bill of Rights” into the U.S. Constitution, Rabbi Sachs emphasizes, in his book, that any ideology or political philosophy that sacrifices the dignity and value of the individual is to be condemned under the biblical standard of morality.
At the same time, however, while repudiating any ideology that fails to respect and honor the dignity of each of God’s children, Rabbi Sacks is also concerned with what he perceives to be western societies’ current fixation on the individual—on the satisfaction of our own desires and the attainment of our own goals,” even if doing so harms and tears the fabric of the society as a whole. Recognizing Judaism’s (as well as other faith traditions’) strong emphasis on relationship—our being, first, in relationship, with the Divine (“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all of your might”), and, second, with other human beings (“You shall love your neighbor like yourself”), Rabbi Sacks argues that it is in both the individual’s and society’s best interest, if we move from what he calls the “I society” to the “we society,” a society in which the “common good” is paramount.
Invoking the wisdom of the Jewish Tradition, Rabbi Sacks rejects the notion that the individual comes into this world and/or best fulfills her/his/their potential as an “unencumbered self.” Our connectedness to others, far from being an incidental fact about us humans, is integral to who we are, with the dignity of the individual and the centrality of the common good being two sides of the same coin.
That Judaism believes that we become our best by being in relationship with others, and not focusing only on our own desires, is reflected in another teaching by Hillel, “Do not separate yourself from the community.”
I will leave it to each of you to decide, for yourself, whether those claiming a right not to wear a mask in public or to socially distance, and those deciding not to submit to taking the measles and/or Covid-19 vaccines, should be permitted to do so, regardless of the impact of their actions on the “public good.”
What I would like to offer is that, in addition to Judaism’s teaching that each of us benefits most, when we reach out to and are in relationship with the Divine and with others in our synagogue and in the greater community, CBI will be best able to fulfill its mission and vision, when as many of us, as possible, are willing to share and contribute our respective wisdom, talents, and abilities. This relationship is truly a symbiotic, mutually beneficial one!
Please be safe! Please Wear a Mask and Socially Distance! Please Be Vaccinated! Sending Prayers of Peace and Blessing!
Rabbi Howard Mandell