As many people know, I was recently hospitalized with COVID. One of the downsides of serious breathing problems is the inability to think, to learn, or to have a sense of clarity. I want to share some thoughts about the vaccine, and I hope that what I write will help influence the behavior of others. But first, I would like to thank those who have been davening for me. Along the way, I have met some fascinating people whose chesed is extraordinary. Aside from my family members, I want to thank the staff at Mt. Sinai Hospital, Mrs. Sima Bachrach at Chesed 24/7, Mrs. Breindy Sporn, Hatzalah, Mark Gross, Estie, Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt, Larry Gordon, Mr. Wasserman, Reb Yechiel Eckstein, and a few others, too.
Torah to Klal Yisrael is like oxygen. We cannot live without it. The mashal is much more real and tangible now, for me personally, after this COVID experience. When someone is gasping for every breath, rachmana litzlan, he cannot learn Torah. Believe me, I tried.
This vaccine had no special dispensation. It was required to go through the same process as every other pharmaceutical: (1) pre-clinical trials on animal testing. (2) FDA approval on clinical trials; four phases of clinical trials in humans. The first phase has 20 to 100 volunteers; the second is hundreds of people to see if it truly prevents infections in a meaningful way. The third phase involves 30,000 people to see if it works in diverse populations and to look for rarer side effects. We are in phase four now. But phase four allows for the vaccines.
The vaccines work. Without the vaccines, some people will get a mild version of it, like my family members did. Others, like I did, could get a more serious version where their breathing is very seriously affected. My treatment included Remdesivir, antibodies through blood plasma, some serious steroids, anti-clotting drugs, etc.
Gedolim in Eretz Yisrael said to take the vaccine. I verified this with the gabbaim myself this week. Rav Hershel Schachter said to take it for two reasons: to save yourself and to save others. Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky (who is not always the biggest advocate of vaccines) said that if your doctor recommended that you take it, of course you must take it.
It is this author’s thought that, just based upon the bitul Torah aspect alone, aside from any pikuach nefesh issues, there is not a heter in the world to avoid the vaccine. There is even an Ohr HaChaim HaKodesh (Sh’mos 27:20) which says that Moshe Rabbeinu would not desire to redeem a people who are batlanim from Torah. The Gra in the Even Shleimah (7:6) lists all of the things that bring to bitul Torah. [This COVID is the emperor of bitul Torah maladies.]
There is also the matter of pikuach nefesh for other people, which involves five separate mitzvos.
- Hashavas Aveidah. The mitzvah is not just for lost items. The verse in Parashas Ki Seitzei (Devarim 22:2) discusses the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah, returning a lost object, with the words, “V’hasheivoso lo,” “and you shall return it to him.” The Gemara in Sanhedrin (73a), however, includes within its understanding of these words the obligation of returning “his own life to him as well.” This verse is the source for the mitzvah of saving someone’s life. It is highly probable that it is this general mitzvah that the Shulchan Aruch refers to in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 325.
- “Lo Sa’amod al dam rei’acha.” There is a negative mitzvah of not standing idly by your brother’s blood (Vayikra 19:16). This is mentioned in Shulchan Aruch (C.M. 426:1) and in the Rambam. If people get sick and chance death because of our inaction, we are violating the commandment of “Lo sa’amod al dam rei’acha.”
- “Lo suchal lihis’alem.’ There is yet another negative commandment associated with the positive commandment of hashavas aveidah, and that is the verse in Devarim (22:3), “You cannot shut your eyes to it.” This verse comes directly after the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah. The Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, in his HeEmek She’eilah, refers to this mitzvah as well.
- “V’chai achicha imach.” Rav Achai Gaon in his She’iltos (She’ilta #37), based upon the Gemara in Bava Metzia 62a, understands the words in Vayikra (25:36), “V’chai achicha imach — and your brother shall live with you,” to indicate an obligation to save others with you. The Netziv in his HeEmek She’eilah understands it as a full-fledged obligation according to all opinions. He writes that one must exert every effort to save his friend’s life, until it becomes a matter of pikuach nefesh for himself. The Netziv’s position would certainly advocate that COVID-19 protocols are obligatory.
- “V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha.” The Ramban, in Toras HaAdam Sha’ar HaSakanah (pp. 42–43), understands the verse of “And love thy neighbor as yourself” as a directive to save one’s peers from medical danger as well.
Some people will disagree, but if anyone would like to learn from this author’s recent experience, he or she would be well-advised to take the vaccine if it’s available.
Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.