Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Need for Perserving Life

What follows is my sermon from Yom Kippur morning.

Part 3 in our return to Jewish values series. Preserving life—pikuach nefesh.

Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Mussar movement which emphasizes personal ethics and the importance of refining one’s character, was a leading thinker in nineteenth century Lithuania. Beginning in 1846, the world faced a cholera pandemic that spanned nearly fifteen years. He was still a young scholar at the time, when the epidemic first reached Vilna. He decided to focus all of his energies on saving lives. He argued, and as Judaism teaches, pikuach nefesh—the preserving of life—takes precedence over all other commandments, most especially ritual observances. He enlisted his students to help care for the sick. He rented a building that served as a makeshift hospital for 1500 people. He became enraged when his fellow rabbis argued that Shabbat and holiday observances should take precedence over health measures.

He publicly declared that everyone should listen to doctors first and foremost.  When physicians advised people that they should not fast on Yom Kippur because that might weaken them and make them more susceptible to disease, Rabbi Salanter did the most dramatic thing of all. He issued a ruling that said every Jew should eat on Yom Kippur. He did not stop there. Afraid that people would not heed his advice, he traveled from synagogue to synagogue on Yom Kippur morning, with wine and cake in hand, recited the kiddush and then ate in front of everyone. Some reports suggest that Salanter did not leave each synagogue until he was sure everyone had also eaten.

And so, this year’s decision to hold services online and not in person was easy. Of course, it was emotionally difficult. We miss each other. We miss being together. But from the perspective of Jewish law and the guidance it affords, the decision was easy. Health takes precedence. I am even tempted to take out a pastrami sandwich and eat it on this Yom Kippur to add an exclamation point to this teaching. Health is first and foremost.

Moses Maimonides, the great medieval thinker—he wrote books of philosophy and law— illustrated this point in a different manner. He was also by the way a physician. If, on Yom Kippur, someone says, “I am too sick to fast,” and doctors examine the person and determine, “It’s all in his head. She is healthy enough to fast,” and the person still proclaims, “I am too sick to fast. I must eat,” ignore the doctors and listen to the person. He rules, it is better to err on the side of caution. It is better to be extra careful when determining matters of health. The observance of the holiday takes second place to health. Pikuach nefesh wins.

I could offer plenty more examples from our tradition, of instances where Judaism says in effect, “Break Shabbat for the sake of saving life.” Judaism is crystal clear about this despite how some Jews presently behave.

The tradition goes even further. We are commanded not simply to choose our health over the demands of Jewish ritual, but to care for others. The Torah states: “Lo taamod al dam reacha.” This is usually translated as “Do not stand by the blood of your neighbor.” Judaism understands this verse, as well as others, to mean that we have an obligation to save someone’s life. Do not stand idly by. We are not allowed to walk by when we see someone in danger. Do not look away when someone’s health is in jeopardy. We have to try to help. We have to at least call EMS. We are not allowed to say, “It’s not my problem. Or, it’s not my business.” The health and safety of others is very much our business and our mitzvah. To be even more dramatic, if you see someone struggling to swim and in danger of drowning, you cannot say, “I don’t know how to swim. Or, I don’t know her. Or, he should not have been swimming in the first place. Or, they are not Jewish.” Instead we are commanded to ask, “What can I do to help?” It is as simple as that. You have to help save a life. You have to help preserve life.

One of the things that is most striking about our response to our current pandemic is the newfound realization that our health is dependent on the health of others. If the person standing next to me in the supermarket cannot afford to get proper health care, then my health is impacted. If people standing next to me at the gym decide that the rules of social distancing are too cumbersome and limiting for them, then my health might be put at risk. If people sitting to my right and my left at the restaurant now seating 25% of its occupancy feel that the rules about wearing masks are some infringement on their individual liberties, then my health is potentially endangered. Never have we had such a glaring example that even though I may have access to the best doctors, and I may follow all of the state’s guidelines, my health and well-being is tied to everyone else’s health. Rich and poor, law abiding and law evading, are bound to one another in one single family of people.

Lo taamod al dam reacha—you shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor. We are commanded to care for others. The health of every human beings must become each and everyone’s concern. Our individual soul’s heath is dependent on the health of other souls. The pandemic should offer us a great unifying cry rather than divide us into class and sects, New Yorkers and Texans. We are in this together, whether we recognize it or not. And we are in this for some time. And so, we must exercise resolve. Don’t let your guard down. Why? Because other people’s lives are in your hands. Wearing masks when you are in situations in which you are going to bump into others—whether they be family, friends, or strangers, staying home if you have a fever, not congregating in large groups is about the health and safety of everyone. My health, your health is the community’s responsibility. This is our God-given duty.

Part of the reason why we are so divided is that we are not all doctors like Maimonides or trusting of experts like Salanter. Scientists and physicians should be taking the lead. Listen to the scientific consensus. The bubbe meises to which some of our brethren cling (look no farther than Brooklyn) will not help to lift us up out of this plague. Lo taamod al dam reacha! Care for one another as if your own life depended on it. Why? Because it is what Judaism demands of you. And because your life actually does depend on it. The Talmud teaches: “If you save a life, you have saved an entire world. If you destroy a life, you have destroyed an entire world.” Every person, every human being, is an entire world. And we are each responsible for these many, many worlds.

The Torah’s holiness code from which that verse about standing by the blood of your neighbor is taken, opens with the following words: “You shall be holy.” And then it goes on to offer a lengthy list of ethical commands. There are the obvious: “Do not steal.” And the not so obvious: “Leave the gleanings of your field for the poor and the stranger.” It is fascinating that the holiness code is by and large defined by ethical precepts and not ritual commandments. Holiness is first and foremost derived from how we treat each other. For years, I thought the concluding verse: “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity. You shall have an honest balance and honest weights” offered a simple message. If you go to fill up your car with gas you have to trust that a gallon is a gallon. That sticker on the gas pump emblazoned with the official seal of New York State’s Weight and Measures department means more than we think. It signifies an objective truth.

Why is this the last word of the holiness code? Why does the most well-known chapter of the Torah detailing this litany of ethical precepts, one found in the exact center of our holy scriptures end with something so seemingly mundane? For years the explanation alluded me. And then, recently, it occurred to me like a revelation. It’s almost as if the holiness code likewise has that sticker appended to its conclusion. If we cannot agree on what a gallon is then everything begins to unravel. In our own age, the meaning of this verse has become glaringly apparent. Society is built on trust. There have to be objective measures upon which we all agree. I can’t tell you how to accurately determine if a gallon of gasoline is exactly a gallon, but I trust that someone who knows how to is doing exactly that.

And this points us toward a way out of our current crisis and how we might find ourselves sooner rather than later on the other side of this pandemic or at the very least more unified in our collective response to the virus. Listen to experts. Sure, doctors don’t always agree with each other. And the world’s experts have been stumped by the Coronavirus. Sure, even the most brilliant and experienced scientists are discovering something new about this virus every day and revising their understanding on a regular basis. But you have to trust the scientists, or we are never going to get through this. Like everyone else I have read far more about viruses than I ever wanted to, but my new-found knowledge does not make me equal to the expert who has spent a lifetime devoted to studying these microscopic organisms. Read Facebook posts less and follow the CDC guidelines more. Some might claim that the CDC has become politicized and that it has changed its mind about wearing masks or the transmissibility of the virus, but we disavow science to our own peril. Of course, scientists revise their understanding as they learn more. Yes, they even change their minds. But the Torah proclaims: “You shall have an honest balance and honest weights.” And that means follow objective wisdom. Listen to the scientific consensus.

The glue holding that sticker to the pump is losing its grip. I am watching—and this sometimes frightens me more than the virus itself—as this sticker gets peeled off bit by bit. The only way to get out of this is by trusting experts. Scientists are going to make mistakes just like every other human being. But listen to the counsel of our tradition. Follow doctors’ advice. Run after Rabbi Israel Salanter’s example.

But that’s not the whole story. Over the course of the past six months, people have said, more often than I can count, “As long as you have your health.” And at the beginning of the pandemic I heard in this cliché an affirmation of the Jewish dictum of pikuach nefesh. You must do everything, and anything, to preserve life. Health takes precedence over Shabbat. Health is more important even than Yom Kippur. But as the pandemic grew longer, and as the weeks became months, I began to hear a question mark at the end of this phrase. “As long as you have your health?” people began to ask and then later some even started to add, “As long as you have your health. Isn’t that right, rabbi?” And those questions left me wondering. Maybe that’s not all there is to it. Of course, if one is faced with debilitating pain, little else matters, but there is more to life than easily and effortlessly drawing a breath in and out of our lungs.

And this is why I admire Rabbi Salanter so much. He understood that there are two sides of the nefesh. Last night we explored what an honest accounting means, what true soul-searching entails, that this is how we refine our character and build a more ethical life. This morning we explored the physical health of the soul. The two are intertwined. Working out at the gym, guarding your health, must go hand in hand with caring for the spirit, for sustaining the inner life. And all of this must be done in the context of loving friends, and a caring community. Kehillah is the framework for exploring the soul and caring for the soul. As long as you have your health is only half the story.

You need to take care of the spirit as well and that does not just mean the difficult soul-searching I spoke about. We need to restore and strengthen our spirits. We need to bolster our faith. On Shabbat, the tradition teaches us, we are given an additional soul, a neshamah yetirah. Yes, the Hebrew language provides us with an additional word for soul. Neshamah comes from the Hebrew meaning breath. On Shabbat some extra spirit is breathed into each of us just as it was when God breathed the breath of life into the first human beings. Our breath serves as a constant reminder of the physical and the spiritual. Our spiritual health is of equal importance to our physical health. This too is not an individual pursuit, but a communal responsibility. This is why Shabbat is celebrated with our community—even when it is virtual. We depend on others to uplift us with our shared prayers and songs. This is why the Shabbat table is the quintessential Jewish space. It is not the synagogue that is central but the table around which you now gather that sustains us and feeds the soul.

We breath in that spirit of Shabbat. We gain strength from our community. We search within and explore how we can do better. We search without and discover how we must protect others and safeguard their health as well as our own. We are reminded again and again, most especially during these difficult and most trying of years, that we are sustained by the very same values that have nurtured our people for centuries. Pikuach nefesh—preserving life. Heshbon hanefesh—soul searching. And kehillah—community. Hold on to these values. Double down on committing to them. Gain strength from them. They will help us to surmount any and all challenges.

And so, I conclude with a prayer. May the coming year indeed be a year of health, a year of spiritual renewal, a year of honest self-examination, and most of all, a year when we can return to wrapping our loving arms around one another. And, may that day be very soon. 

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