Q: How do we get a chillul Hashem, an embarrassment, a pshiya karov l’meizid, and a demonstration of ingratitude, and wrap it all in one?
A: When even after having lost 1,000 lives in our own community, we still attend a funeral en masse and then condemn our city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, who is trying to stop our reckless behavior by saying, “Oh yeah? Well people also gathered by the East River to watch the planes and you didn’t say anything!”
True. The mayor said things that he should not have said. He was irresponsible in blaming “Jews” in general rather than specifically the funeral-goers. In his remarks, the mayor could have spoken about the 3,000 Orthodox Jews in New York who donated blood plasma this past week, with many more to come. He didn’t do this and there is no question that he misspoke. But the message is one that we should take to heart. Weren’t we once the nation that Hashem described as “ki hi chochmaschem u’vinaschem l’einai ha’goyim — for the Torah is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the gentiles”?
How is it that we, the Torah nation, do not value life to the extent that we are risking not only our own lives but the lives of our bubbies and zeidies and that of the elderly and infirm?
True, Shomrim did their best to have us maintain the social distancing.
True, there was a plan. As the statement of Jewish Community Relations Council of New York stated: “The congregation worked with the local precinct to develop a plan to close streets so that the funeral could take place ‘following the social distancing rules and wearing masks.’ Both the congregation and the local precinct were surprised by the number of people who attended. Many in the crowd were teens who would not listen to directions from the Shomrim or the NYPD. Such behavior cannot be tolerated in these perilous times.
“The NYPD is most effective when it enforces the law fairly and judiciously. While the local precinct tried to accommodate the needs of the community while maintaining the letter and the spirit of the social distancing orders, the unforeseen turnout led to chaos — an unacceptable outcome.
“We stress that those involved were a single synagogue, with leadership who tried to work with the NYPD toward an appropriate religious event. During the pandemic there have been dozens of funerals in other communities in Brooklyn that would have attracted tens of thousands of mourners. Working with the NYPD, leaders planned funerals that fully complied with the social distancing rules while honoring the deceased. We hope that such appropriately planned events continue.
“This was a single event, planned by one congregation. The troubling incident last night that endangered the participants and NYPD officers should not negatively reflect on chassidim, the Williamsburg community, Orthodox Jewry, or the entire Jewish community. With antisemitism roiling around the world, words matter.”
Does anyone know why it is called the N-95 mask? It is because it is only 95% effective. It gives us all a sense of false security, and, by the way, the masks that were worn at the levayah were not even N-95s.
When we saw how crowded it was, we should have dispersed ourselves and left the levayah. We should also have been ro’eh es ha’nolad — we should have anticipated what likely would have happened. Doing so would have been the fulfillment of a number of mitzvos.
1. Hashavas Aveidah. 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.” For example, if thieves are threatening to pounce upon him, there is an obligation of “V’hasheivoso lo.” This verse is the source for the mitzvah of saving someone’s life. It is highly probable that it is to this general mitzvah that the Shulchan Aruch refers in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 325. This is certainly the case with social distancing.
2. ‘V’Nishmartem me’od l’nafshoseichem.’ The Maharsha states definitely this pasuk from Devarim (4:15) refers also to following medical advice in these circumstances.
3. ‘Thy Brother’s Blood.’ There is a negative mitzvah of not standing idly by your brother’s blood —“Lo sa’amod al dam rei’echa” (Vayikra 19:16). This is mentioned in Shulchan Aruch (C.M. 426:1) and in the Rambam. When people get sick and chance death because of our crowding, we are violating the commandment of “Lo sa’amod al dam rei’echa.”
4. ‘Lo Suchal L’hisalem.’ 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.
5. ‘V’chai Achicha Imach.’ The 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 social distancing is a mitzvah, even if it involves only a slight danger.
6. ‘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 our peers from medical danger as well.
We thus have a total of six Torah mitzvos involved in social distancing.
We are a nation that has grown up on the concept of mesirus nefesh for Torah and mitzvos. We need to realize that there is a mesiras nefesh for the six mitzvos above as well — especially when it will save not only Klal Yisrael but kol ha’olam kulo as well.
Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at email@example.com.