This is not the first nor the last time the Jewish and global community will be faced with a challenge of such great magnitude. While these difficulties are present and real, the Jewish community can find a productive and insightful lens in focusing on the tremendous responsibility and opportunity to lead by example.
According to Maimonides, the 12th Century rabbinic master, it is a mitzvah, a commandment, to protect our health in accordance with the best medical knowledge available. Maimonides holds that praying to God is a vitally important factor, but he also explains that God enjoins us to share in the responsibility of protecting ourselves. This covers everything from exercise and healthy eating to using available vaccines and other accepted medical means.
When the smallpox vaccine was introduced in the late 18th Century, one of the great chassidic masters, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, emphasized how important it was to inoculate our children to protect them, for if we did not, it would be as if we were “standing by while the blood of our neighbor was being spilled.”
If we are lax in protecting our community from disease or any other malady, then our tradition sees us as not only being passive, but as being culpable for allowing this affliction to spread. By committing to a very aggressive series of practices to limit the spread of any disease, Judaism sees the value of saving even one life as saving a world, recognizing the infinite value of each life.
Shutting down all non-essential services in a city will be a great inconvenience, at best, and could be financially devastating to some. This is the responsibility of our civic leaders and we should use our voices to ask them to protect the vulnerable workers of our city.
Closing ourselves off from our neighbors seems to be antithetical to what makes Judaism robust: our communal focus and connections. While coming together makes us strong, staying physically apart will keep us strong. Prayer can, and should, happen in our homes. Learning can happen online or over the phone. Isolating ourselves can offer physical protection, but we should be aware of the effect it might have on the members of our community who are already so vulnerable and truly need the support of communal gatherings and services.
It is our responsibility to reach out to each of our friends and other community members (especially those who may generally be more isolated and may not have people checking up on them) as we all struggle through this strange time. The need for creating connection amidst this mandated lock-down has been captured beautifully by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of the synagogue Bnai David Judea in Los Angeles, “Every hand that we don’t shake must become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another, must become a thought as to how we might be of help to that other, should the need arise.”
We can get through this together, but only if we are all committed to working together. And with God’s help, saving even one life, and please God many more, is our greatest responsibility.
Rabbi Joel Dinin is the spiritual leader at Lake Park Synagogue in Milwaukee.