In the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 22, we are taught:
“When you build a new house you shall make a parapet (a guardrail) for your roof, so that you do not bring blood guilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.”
In traditional Middle Eastern architecture, homes are often single story and built with flat roofs. Those roofs are often play areas for children or places to relax at night. But, they can be dangerous were someone to wander off near the edge and fall. The Torah states that it is the responsibility of the homeowner to place a fence, a guardrail, or parapet surrounding the roof in order to prevent unintentional harm to others.
Most of us understand that it is our responsibility not to place others at risk of bodily harm or especially in mortal danger. We don’t drink and drive or buy faulty baby equipment or give dangerous toys to children.
Most of the time, we are able to avoid endangering others. But this pandemic has challenged many of our assumptions. We should all be very aware that personal choices we make might have very negative consequences for those around us, both those close to us, as well as total strangers. It is challenging to think of ourselves as sources of danger in the outside world. But it’s true.
It is up to each of us to wear face masks, insist on social distancing, and be meticulous in pursuing personal hygiene. We are constructing metaphorical parapets surrounding ourselves. This is not easy. We are social beings, and we thrive on human contact, but we must sacrifice for the well-being of all.
My synagogue, Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Illinois, made the difficult decision not to meet in person for prayer for the upcoming High Holy Days. We are sad knowing we will not be able to greet each other warmly, see our friends and family, pray together, and sing as one congregation. But we simply could not risk the health and safety of any one of us. Many congregants have written in support of that decision.
Of all the rules of Jewish law, one commandment takes precedence over all the others. To save a life overrules all other requirements. It is a command—a mitzvah—to protect human life. It is also true that Judaism never allowed faith to deny the truth of science. In Jewish thought, there is no conflict between the Biblical narrative and the discoveries of Darwin, Einstein, and others. Indeed the greatest of all Jewish theologians and legal authorities, Moses ben Maimon, Maimonides, was himself a physician.
There are those who are choosing to deny what medicine and science tell us about Covid-19. There are those who would make a partisan political issue of wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing. There are those who might call coronavirus harmless.
In contrast, we must take this pandemic very seriously. It is up to each of us to insure our own well-being and the health of our family and loved ones, but we are also responsible for our neighbors, community, and larger society.
Elsewhere in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 30, we read:
“I place before you this day life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life! So that you and your offspring shall long live and endure upon the soil that the Eternal your God swore unto your ancestors”
We must choose life.
Rabbi Samuel Gordon serves Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Illinois.