One of the first Jewish stories I remember learning in Religious School involved two men in a boat who headed out for a few hours of fishing.
It was a beautiful day and the two happily rowed out to the middle of a lake. The first man reached for his bag as the second man looked on, expecting to see a fishing rod and some tackle. Much to his surprise, the first man took out a drill and began to drill a small hole in the bottom of the boat.
“What are you doing?” cried out the second man.
“I’m drilling a hole,” the first man replied.
“You can’t do that! Stop!” said the second man whose concern was growing.
“I’m drilling a hole beneath my seat not yours,” said the first man impatiently,. “That’s my right. Mind your own business.”
“But if you drill a hole the entire boat will flood and we will both drown,” said the second man, as he made sure his life jacket was properly buckled.
For reasons that I hope are obvious, I have been thinking about this story quite a bit this week.
Both men have a point.
The first man is correct. If the boat belonged to him and he was alone he had every right to do whatever he wanted to do to it. If he wanted to paint the boat with psychedelic colors… that was his right. And if he wanted to take the boat into the middle of the lake and scuttle it, that too was his right.
But the second man was correct too. As soon as the first man’s actions began to impact someone else the calculus changed. At that point it was no longer just about what the first man wanted to do. As soon as someone else would be impacted by his actions the man’s rights were no longer absolute because he now had the responsibility for the well-being of his companion.
As our ancestors learned when they crossed the Sea of Reeds and escaped Egyptian slavery, the Jewish idea of freedom is not absolute. Instead, Judaism teaches us that with freedom comes responsibility. That was the message of the prophets of old. And that is at the center of the mitzvoth, the commandments. And that is what it means to be part of a covenanted community. It means recognizing that what I do has the potential to impact you and that what you do can impact me. We do not live in absolute isolation any more than we live with absolute freedom.
And that, of course, brings us to the Covid 19 vaccination.
I understand why people might be concerned with how quickly the vaccines were developed (although much of the groundwork was laid long before COVID-19 appeared). And I understand why some people are hesitant to take a vaccine prior to it being fully approved by the FDA. But the current surge in the Delta variant is poised to undo all of the advances we have made in pushing back against this virus. And it is about to derail our continued journey out of this pandemic. We were hoping to avoid the need to require proof of vaccination or a recent negative PCR test before entering the synagogue. But the decisions by some are now impacting us all.
My friend and colleague Rabbi Victor Urecki put it this way-
To those now shouting “You can’t take our God-given rights away” in fighting #vaccine and #MaskMandates, understand that inalienable rights come from societies, institutions, governments and progressive human thinking. Not from God.
There are no sacred proof texts for “God-given” rights.
But if you are a God believer, understand that you have “God-given” responsibilities; to your neighbor, to the stranger, the vulnerable, and the elderly.
Our sacred texts do speak of obligations. Often.
It is time for people of religion to remember that.
Get the vaccine.
Wear a mask in settings where there are unvaccinated individuals.
Get the booster when available/urged by doctors.
Exercise your God-given obligations.
So I make this humble request.
If you have thus far chosen not to be vaccinated please reconsider that decision for all of our sake.
And if you have a family member or friend who has thus far opted to forgo the vaccine, please consider speaking to them about why it is so important to reconsider such a decision right now.
And if you, or your loved one, need assistance making an appointment or getting a ride to a vaccine appointment, please let us know. We will do everything we can to help.
Our collective boat is starting to leak again. Only by working together and living with a sense of shared responsibility to and for one another, will we make it back to the shore… together.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen