Toward Shabbat: Shemot

In stark contrast to 2020—a year of horror and despair—2021 is a year full of hope. 

We have arrived, at long last, at the end of four years of a shocking, despicable, shameful administration. In retrospect, given all we have seen unfold over the years, the president’s final act of outright incitement and the violent attack against democracy we witnessed on Wednesday should not have surprised us. We knew all along he was a thug, he has been empowered, enabled, and protected. We should have figured.

We will live with this trauma for a very long time. This administration has hurt our country very deeply, the work of recovery will be arduous. 

Thankfully, in just 12 days we will have a new administration committed to rebuilding democracy, and to restoring the sanity, decency, and fairness we have been so desperate for.

And there is more hope in this new year. The COVID-19 vaccine is here, and it is a truly amazing accomplishment: developed in just a few months, safe, 95% effective, and with a design that experts deem clever and elegant. 

The vaccine gives good reason to hope, there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel. Some problems, however, have emerged that will make our tunnel a bit longer. 

Over the past weeks, since the roll out began, vaccination has been slow and chaotic. From distribution to the actual administration of the vaccine there is total confusion. Who, when, where…nobody knows. 

In the midst of this disorder, obnoxious people are pushing to the head of the line by virtue of wealth or other privilege, displacing others at greater risk and those who have risked their lives on the front lines. 

Vaccine hesitancy is also an issue. It is reported that 25 to 30 percent of the population do not intend to get vaccinated; these are people who have fallen prey to misinformation or to conspiracy theories claiming that the vaccine is not healthy or safe, that it will kill you within three years, or that it is a pretext to implant trackable microchips in people. 

In Does halakhah require vaccination against dangerous diseases such as measles, rubella, polio and Covid-19? Responsa in a Moment Volume 15, Number 1, Rabbi David Golinkin of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem (he was my first Talmud professor at JTS in 1982) shows that since Dr. Edward Jenner created the world’s first vaccine (for smallpox) in England in 1796, most Jewish legal authorities have supported vaccination, and some have even required it. The basic argument is Pikuah Nefesh: the absolute imperative of saving a life that supersedes the small risk presented by a vaccine. It is a fact that vaccines save the lives of millions of people every year with practically no harm. Since according to Jewish law it is forbidden to endanger one’s life or to endanger the lives of others, it follows that it is forbidden to refuse vaccination. 

I trust that we will soon overcome the impediments delaying the vaccination process, and I trust that the COVID-19 vaccine will save us from this terrible pandemic and restore our lives to a new normal. It is likely that COVID-19 will be eradicated; just as smallpox, polio, and diphtheria were eliminated, and Pikuah Nefesh—Saving a Life—will again triumph. 

But even as COVID-19 recedes, it will leave in its wake enormous destruction—the staggering loss of life, and of livelihoods, and with it poverty, homelessness, hunger, and despair. Against that, there is no vaccine. There is no vaccine either against the selfishness and the indifference that may infect many of us, or against the greed of those who will seek to feed on that destruction. Those are issues not of Pikuah Nefesh but of Pikuah Neshamah—not about saving a life but about saving a soul. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us to make that important distinction, we must be concerned not solely with physical survival, but with the survival of the human soul.

After we have all been vaccinated and we have achieved herd immunity, and once life resumes its course, how do we preserve our soul from the post-COVID-19 moral and spiritual diseases? How do we preserve social solidarity, promote the general welfare, and rebuild with compassion and generosity?

Our turn for the vaccine will eventually come, but the vaccine will only get us so far. Once the needle gets into our arms to preserve our lives, the next, crucial, phase of our work will have only begun: to preserve our souls. 

J. Rolando Matalon

Written By J. Rolando Matalon

José Rolando Matalon, B’nai Jeshurun’s senior rabbi, was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and was educated in Buenos Aires, Montreal, Jerusalem, and New York City. After his ordination at the Jewis...