This morning I talked to our religious school students - on Zoom of course. The topic this morning was masks- how do we feel when we wear them, how do we feel when we take them off, why are we wearing them in the first place. It was a privilege to have this conversation – the honesty of the conversation, the vulnerability the students showed by sharing their feelings – was really a joy thing to be part of.
My session ended with a brief discussion of the concepts of Pikuach Nefesh and Safek Pikuach Nefesh. These may be familiar to you – in fact they are potentially the most important of all the Jewish values that we have.
Pikuach Nefesh describes a situation in which there is a danger – potential or actual - to human life, which necessitates taking immediate action. Safek Pikuach Nefesh occurs when there is possible danger or threat to human life; it might not require immediate action but we know that action is clearly necessary. The rule stands that we take no chances and do what is needed to save a life, no matter what halachic rule or Jewish precept we might be braking.
Where do these concepts come from? The rabbis derived them from the laws concerning Shabbat – the very specific rules of what we are NOT allowed to do because in doing so we would be breaking the Sabbath – something that holds the highest levels of punishment in the Torah. And yet… the rabbis decided that the value of saving a human life, whether it be immediately at risk or will possibly be in the future – was so important that it overrode even the Torah laws of Shabbat activities – also laws and requirements that are held to the highest standard.
Human life is sacred and no matter how we live, no matter how we practice our faith and beliefs, saving a life in a dangerous situation comes before everything else. So we wear masks, and we monitor our own health and that of our loved ones, and we maintain physical distancing and we are not meeting in person as a community. We obey the laws and recommendations that have been put in place around this pandemic to protect us now and in the future.
During this time, especially this past week or so, a destructive situation imploded – one that has been festering for such a long time that it is hard to count. Racism, prejudice, bigotry, the erroneous idea that some people’s lives are more important than others based on superficial characteristics such as skin color, economic status, personal orientations to name but a few. This is unacceptable and we as individuals, we as Jews, and we as members of the FJC cannot allow this to stand. The question is what to do. And, as I admitted in my Shabbat Greeting email the other day, I do not have the answers, but as a community I am sure we will find our path and our purpose in this area.
I would like to end with a story. It is a Hasidic story retold by the Nobel prize winning Israeli writer Shai Agnon in his anthology ‘Days of Awe’ - a parable attributed to the 19th century master, Rabbi Hayyim of Zans:
A man had been wandering about in a forest for days and days, going in circles, not knowing which was the right way out. Suddenly he saw a person approaching him. His heart was filled with joy. “Now I shall certainly find out which is the right way, “ he thought to himself. When they drew nearer to one another, he asked the man: “Tell me which is the right way out. I have been wandering about in this forest for days and days.”
The other to him, “I do not know the way out either. For I too have been wandering about here for many, many days. But this I can tell you: do not take the way I have been taking, for that will lead you astray. And I know that we should not take the way you have taken, for that too will lead us astray and keep us trapped here. Let us look for a new way out together.”
Agnon concludes the tale with the following comment from Reb Hayyim: “So it is with us. One thing I can tell you: the way we have been following thus far we ought follow no further, for that way leads you astray. But now let us look for a new way.”
If this past week has shown us anything it is that the path we have currently been taking is not the way “out” – it is not the way to our future. It is only through working together that we can find our path – a new path – one to take us into a future that not only we want to live in, but that all people can live in… together.