Behar-Bechukotai 5780 – If I were King

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

The early days of my house officer years were a revelation to me. I had rarely been that tired for a whole string of days. And it dawned on me – this was simply how it was going to be for a very long time. It would become my new reality.

Our kehillah’s Board of Directors has and will continue to grapple with the question of when our sanctuary will reopen. But in a loose similarity to those early days of mine at Hartford Hospital, it occurs to me that we may be in this situation with respect to the coronavirus for a very long time.

I have such ambivalence when I think about the proper course for the state and the country. What would I do if I were king? I deliberate. I have tried to consider Jewish laws in an attempt to help me decide what I would do if I were in charge. Forget the illogical and indeed bizarre lurching from one position to another we hear from the federal government. Let’s focus instead on the governors, upon whose shoulders the real decision rests as to how to navigate seemingly conflicting priorities. Governor Abbott of Texas has tried, admirably, I believe, to “thread the needle” in this regard.

First: protecting our health and the health of those with whom we come into contact is of primary importance. People should be restricted in their movements – locked down, as it were, because in Judaism, life is our paramount concern, and we must not put ourselves in a position where we might become ill. And with this particular virus, we can make others sick for days before we ourselves are symptomatic, so we must observe semi-quarantine lest we make someone else sick, endangering their life. The Torah tells us that whenever there are choices to be made, choose life.

Hillel’s commentary to not do unto others that which is hateful to you is perhaps a better summary of the Torah than any other. So if we might infect someone else, the burden is on us to do what we can to help keep others safe. And of course, that begins with keeping ourselves safe. It is therefore logical to keep the movement of people restricted and keep retail establishments closed. Protecting health and life are goal #1.

BUT!  Second: Seeing tens of millions of people thrust out of work reminds us that in the Talmud, the argument is made that mental health is seen as just as important as physical health. So keeping businesses closed is hardly desirable. More than any other image from this whole national ordeal, seeing lines of people waiting for food pains me more than any other. People who have worked hard. Cared for their families. And now they can’t even afford meals! By restricting people’s movements and keeping retail establishments closed, we are causing untold psychological harm.

Many of those people become frustrated and engage in protests, mixing with others and exposing them to this awful bug. The protests and flouting of the lockdown mandate brings to mind the teaching that dina d’malkutah dina – the law of the land is the law. This is a Jewish teaching that goes back to the Middle Ages. So for Jews, these protestors are ultimately compelled to observe the law, even if the psychological cost is great.

Of course, we all are aware that saving a life overrides all. Protecting ourselves and others overrides Jewish and certainly civil  law. With few exceptions, there is no Jewish law that cannot be ignored when it comes to preserving our own health and that of others. Yet as I mentioned, psychological health must be accounted for as well.

So I try to reconcile all of this. Protecting our physical health . . .protecting the health of others . . . yet preserving psychological health . . . OY! What ’s a king to do?

At the end of chapter 26 in this week’s parasha – after a listing of the rewards and punishments that come about depending on whether or not one follows Gd’s commandments – Gd tells the Jewish people that no matter what happens to them, no matter how much they might suffer, Gd will not forget them and will keep Gd’s covenant with them.

This, then, has become an enduring source of hope for the Jewish people and potentially for each Jew individually. No fate is so bleak as to eliminate all hope. No defeat is final. No tragedy need be the final or even the defining chapter of our lives. This is the concluding and very powerful message of today’s parasha.

Does Gd really act in the world? Will our prayers change the course of the corona virus? To be honest, I don’t know. Can any of us really know for sure? So I debate in my own internal deliberations what society should do in the macro sense. But for me in a personal sense, it’s easy. I try to do what Jews are called upon to do. I do my best to stay our of harm’s way and preserve my health, support my family as best I can, and do my best as a physician and as a friend, while trying to help others in society by donating to food banks and other worthwhile charities.

That chronic fatigue of my house officer days lasted a very long time. But I seem to have gotten through it just