“Stay home. Save lives.”
These words blinked on the overhead electronic traffic sign as I sped down the highway. As a medical professional treating patients in the U.S. epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, my work is considered “essential business.” With the infection rate doubling every 3 days, many New York clinics like mine are doing everything we can can to #FlattenTheCurve. But we are failing.
Dozens of my patients crammed into our small waiting room. Some wore masks; many didn’t. My staff made regular announcements, directing people to space themselves 6 feet apart from one another. Some even sat on the stairs outside the waiting room. One of our nurses literally built a wall of clear plastic as a barrier between me and my patients. However, with most of our patients being homeless and living in close-quarter public shelters, and with the new guidelines discouraging us from testing asymptomatic patients, I had to assume we were being exposed to COVID-19 every day. And I didn’t even have a N95 mask to wear.
Many providers in New York know exactly what I’m talking about. While the military sends a floating hospital to America’s “ground zero” and New York waits for the federal government to send in more medical supplies, I had created a Facebook group titled the “Jewish COVID-19 Support Group.” Within minutes of creation, I had urgent requests from physicians in Long Island who desperately needed masks and personal protective equipment (PPE) for their ICU staff. Individuals with sick family members reached out to me, begging for help.
I didn’t even have enough masks for my own staff.
As I sped down what usually was a jammed highway I hoped that my fellow New Yorkers were taking this seriously. It shouldn’t have but it surprised me that my morning commute took me half the time it usually takes. It also surprised me to see how many hundreds of cars and people were out and about. Rabbi Yehosha ben Perachia taught in the Talmud (Pirkei Avot 1:6) to “judge everyone favorably” so I told myself that all these people must be fellow medical providers or people with essential business needs. After all, this war can literally be won by people staying home and sitting on their couch. But, even with all the hashtags, frantic social media posts, and even CDC announcements on Youtube, I knew there were still folks living life as usual.
On Saturday, Governor Cuomo was appalled to see all the “disrespectful” people gathering in parks around New York. Some of my own patients told me they weren’t wearing masks or gloves because they weren’t worried – “If He [the Creator] wants to call me up, He’ll do it.” I even received an email from some of my Jewish brethren arguing that the synagogues should be kept open so that we can showcase to the world “our total belief and commitment that our [Creator] is the only one who can save us and that Jews praying and learning b’rabim (in public) in a minyan (group prayer assembly) is a very powerful tool to employ [in beseeching G-d] to come to the rescue of humanity in this perilous time.”
It is for this reason that I now feel the urgency to stand up and speak out. While we don’t understand why the Creator has allowed this virus to infect the world, we do understand the Torah’s clarion call to save lives.
Even during non-pandemic times, we are commanded to “guard your lives” (Deuteronomy 4:15) and are even allowed to desecrate the Shabbat for the sake of “pikuach nefesh” – rescuing lives at risk. During a pandemic, we must particularly consider the Torah’s mandate to protect public health, as it states, “Do not bring blood upon your house,” (Deuteronomy 22:8) and “Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow” (Leviticus 19:16). And just look at the chorus of Rabbinic religious leaders who have recently stood up to address the current crisis.
In the Sephardic community, Israel’s Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef ruled that one must leave their phones on during the Shabbat, so they can be easily reached by medical providers. In Ashkenazi circles, the world-renowned Halachic authority Rabbi Dovid Cohen ruled it to be a “sin” to pray with a Minyan. Leaders of the Modern-Orthodox community issued a plethora of rulings for how to adhere to Halacha (religious law) while maintaining all the necessary Covid-19 precautions. And the list goes on.
But there may still be some who resist the imperative to stay home and save lives, based on religious grounds. To those folks, I wish to share with you the story of the 19th century Torah scholar, Rabbi Yitzchak Dov Soloveitchik, the Brisker Rav, ZT”L. Someone once asked him the following question,”If there are two equally competent physicians to consult with, should I consult with the one who is more God-fearing?” The Brisker Rav angrily replied that one shouldn’t even “consider” a physician’s “fear of G-d” when making medical decisions. The Lubavitcher Rebbe ZT”L once related this story (“Mind over Matter, pg. 319) and questioned, why indeed did the Brisker Rav reject the premise of the question and, not just reject it, but angrily reject it? The Rebbe explained that the Brisker Rav was afraid that if he showed interest in the degree of a physician’s religiosity even when both doctors have comparable skills, it may eventually lead to a catastrophe. The “broken telephone” of storytelling might lead someone somewhere to think that one is obligated to choose a more religious doctor over a less religious doctor. This might lead to someone choosing a doctor who is less of an expert which, in turn, might lead to lives being placed at risk. In order to save a potential future life, in a farfetched potential future scenario, the Brisker Rav shut down the question and even feigned anger. The Rebbe writes, “In a situation where lives are or can be at risk, it is forbidden to remain silent.”
The Torah teaches that we consider a possible danger to life as being equivalent to a certain danger (Talmud, Yuma 83a) and that, when lives are in danger, Torah law dictates that “it is a mitzvah for the greatest among the group” to personally desecrate the law in order to save a life. As it states, “One who shows alacrity is praiseworthy, one who stops to ask is a murderer, and one who is asked is worthy of disgust” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Yume 8:5).
It is “disgusting” for people to use the Torah as a shield for their ignorance and/or indifference to the very real and present dangers posed by COVID-19. The very same Halacha (Torah law) that directs us to congregate for prayer also directs us not to aggravate a pandemic. The very same Torah that commands, “I am the Lord, Your G-d” (Exodus 20:2) also commands, “And healing shall [the human] heal” (Exodus 21:19), from which the Talmud (Berachot 60a) derives the noble mandate for physicians to be healers.
What is also disgusting is the folks who have sent messages to my Jewish brethren complaining about “your people” in Charadei communities who have disobeyed the social distancing rule and have conducted weddings or large gatherings of prayer. There are many people, of all different faiths and backgrounds, who have disobeyed this rule. Attempting to use this virus to focus hatred on the Jewish community reminds me of the way the Jewish community was picked on last year during the measles crisis that swept New York. Many began to blame the Orthodox for not vaccinating their children while disregarding the fact that most of the schools with unvaccinated students weren’t even Jewish or the reality that 9% of Americans (30 million people!) are reportedly anti-vaxxers. Furthermore, it was an Orthodox nurse, Blima Marcus, who led the way in debunking vaccination myths for the American public. The virus of hatred and bigotry often seems innocuous as it infects a society with its vile “us vs. them” narrative.
Rather, what is needed now is for all the good people of the earth to stand together and fight the virus, beginning with debunking myths from people who say, “This is only a disease of the elderly,” “I have no symptoms so I’m safe,” or “It’ll all be over in a couple of weeks.” No, they are horribly wrong.
My colleagues who now stand at-risk on the “front lines” can attest to the fact that there is no consensus for how to accurately distinguish COVID-19 from any other condition based solely on clinical presentation. Many carriers are indeed completely asymptomatic. And while most young people without comorbidities are likely to be fine, our hospitals are filling up with more and more young and otherwise completely healthy people who now require ventilators just to breathe. Furthermore, many of my medical colleagues posit that this pandemic will worsen over the next 30-45 days before it gets better.
As we approach Passover, I know that many will desire to be with their loved ones while the world endures this plague. But, as we prepare for the Passover Seder commemorating the Paschal sacrifice, I urge you to remember the Torah’s definition of sacrifice. On this upcoming Shabbat, we will begin reading the Book of VaYikra, often translated as the “Book of Leviticus” for its focus on the sacrifices and rituals conducted by the tribe of Levi in the Holy Temple. And yet, the word “Vayikra” doesn’t mean “The tribe of Levi,” it rather refers to the act of “calling out.” One can only “call out” to another. The ancient Hebrew word for sacrifice, “Korban” means to “come close.” One can only “come close” to another. This entire third book is teaching us that the point of a “sacrifice” is not what you give up of yourself but what you give to another.
On this day, I call out to you to spread the word and dispel the darkness. I call out to you to be like Reb Yisroel Salanter, who taught, “Most men worry about their own bellies and other people’s souls, when we all ought to be worried about our own souls and other people’s bellies.” I call out to you to be like Reb Yisroel Baal Shem Tov, who taught, “One must give up of your ruchnius (spirituality) for the sake of another’s gashmius (physical needs).”
I call out to you to stay home and save lives. As the Torah teaches, “Whoever saves one life is as if they saved an entire world.”
This story was originally published on Chabad.org.
Rabbi Levi Welton is an educator-turned-journalist passionate about sharing the values of Torah with a global audience. Raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, he holds degrees in medicine, education and film.