In this week’s parashah, Moses teaches the Israelites a lesson that will be critical to their success as a nation. When you enter the Promised Land, he says, “you shall not act at all as we now act here, every person as he [or she] pleases.”(1) To build a healthy society, he says, everyone must sacrifice something of their independence for the greater good, and each must consider the impact of their actions on others.
“R’eih,” he tells them. “See!” “See this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing if you obey God’s commandments… and curses if you do not…”(2) Significantly, the opening word, r’eih, is in the singular. Even though Moses is addressing the entire people, he speaks to them as individuals to remind them what each must see: that their choices matter – that each one will have an impact on the fate of the entire nation.
Having begun with the singular r’eih, Moses then moves immediately to the collective lifn’eichem, “before you” [in the plural], to drive home the point that each one is part of something greater than themselves – that their fate as individuals will depend on fate of the nation as a whole.
The relevance of this teaching for us is painfully obvious. In the collectivity of the United States, each state, county, city, town, and village is bearing the consequences of individual choice about vaccination. Sadly – tragically – too many have decided to place their freedom to act as they please ahead of the needs of the community. As a result, thousands are suffering, and many are dying needlessly, including children who are too young to get vaccinated.
As a rule, we should be reluctant to stand in judgment of others, but in this particular circumstance it is unavoidable. Every person who could be vaccinated and has chosen not to bears a degree of responsibility for the persistence of the pandemic.
Some might say that those who have made this choice must live or die with it, but it is not just their own burden to bear. Unvaccinated people who have become seriously ill are cared for in medical facilities where health care providers put their own lives at risk to treat them.
So here is the bottom line: It is a moral imperative for all who want to be part of our society and our communities to get vaccinated now. This is not a private matter, not so long as our individual choices threaten the lives of others.
I understand that some are fearful of the vaccines, especially considering the mistruths and lies that have been spread about them and their advocates. But it is no longer acceptable to indulge that fear. Not given the level of risk posed by the Delta variant to those who have done their duty by getting vaccinated, to people who are immunocompromised or otherwise vulnerable, and, especially, to our children.
So, I implore you. If you are not yet inoculated, get vaccinated now. And if you know others who have not gotten vaccinated, do all in your power to convince them to do so now.
What the Talmud says of the Jewish people is true of all people: we are all responsible for one another.(3) As this parable from the Midrash makes clear:
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught: A group of people were sailing on a boat when one person took out a hand drill and began drilling a hole in the bottom of the hull. “What are you doing?” asked the others. “What concern is it of yours?” he responded. “I’m drilling under my own seat.” “But the waters will rise and sink us all,” they said.(4)
Be it the coronavirus, the health of our environment, or the moral fabric of our society, Rabbi Shimon is right to remind us that we are all in the same boat. As Dr. King aptly said, “we must learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] or perish together as fools.”(5) Let us choose life for ourselves, and for one another.