In My Own Words: Lockdown by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Let me see if I have this correctly: being asked to stay in your homes in order to stop the spread of COVID-19 is the exact same thing as “men and women stripped completely naked, lined up and facing a mass grave, where they are shooting them in the back of the head and falling in the grave.” That’s a recent quote from anti-government extremist Ammon Bundy. Now, I normally just shake my head at Holocaust comparisons because they are often made by over-emotional people who aren’t thinking clearly. Once they have a chance to calm down, they usually realize that the comparison is not apt. Unfortunately, I don’t think that is going to happen here.

It’s the attempted equivalency that gets under my skin this time. Trying to keep people from dying is equated to murdering people. Get that? Keeping people safe is the same thing as murder. Now, if federal troops had been sent with machine guns and asked to deliberately shoot and kill Bundy and all his fellow protestors, then he might have something to complain about. But following laws made for the good of society? They are complaining about that? In my book, that makes these folks anarchists! Of course, during the 20th century, the U.S. government was not fond of anarchists. I guess the rules are different, though, when they’re members of white right-wing groups, rather than left-wings ones. After all, Bundy has gotten away this behavior before: in 2016 during an armed takeover at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, and after an armed standoff with law enforcement in Nevada in 2014. 

The basic idea of government – or actually, being part of any group – is that we give up some of our personal freedom for the general good. Why would someone do this? Part of it is protection. The medium-sized guy is willing to not harm the smaller guy because he knows that the government will protect him from an even bigger guy who wants to harm him. Yes, I realize that is an oversimplification – and one that doesn’t work for everyone – but that’s the general idea. I obey the rules of the road because, if there were no rules, there is a good chance many more people would die from car accidents. I let the government have some of my wages so that it can keep the roads in good condition, collect the garbage (at least in the town of Union) and send firemen to stop my house from burning.
Can I opt out of this? According to Jewish law, the answer is a firm “no!” In a midrash in Vayikra Rabbah, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai tells a story about a group of people on a boat. One man took out a drill and began to drill under his seat. The rest of the passengers yelled at him to stop. The man asked, “What’s the big deal? I’m only drilling under my seat, not your’s.” The passengers let him know that, while that may be his seat, what he does affects everyone. They all would drown. The moral? You can’t do something that will possibly harm others. Could the man have had a good reason for wanting to drill under his seat? Well, unless it was to save his life and the life of the other passengers, his reason was irrelevant. 

I would like life to return to normal. I would like to see my mother, who is in a nursing home. I would like my brother and sister-in-law to come visit and see my mom. I would like to visit my friends this summer for vacation. I would like to get together with friends in person and eat out and talk about books and catch up on our lives. This list could go on for pages, but there is one question I need to ask before I decide to stop social distancing. Am I willing to let someone die so that I can do any of the above? In fact, am I willing to risk dying myself in order to do those things? My answer is no. I’m willing to work from home and do Zoom and eat not-as-great food and shelter in place in order to preserve lives.

The anti-lockdown movement is not pro-life. It’s a group of people who are threatening our lives and liberty. I wish I could say, “Let them go out and do whatever they want because if they’re willing to die, why should I stop them?” But the risk is too great because COVID-19 spread so quickly and easily. We are all in the same boat and these people are dangerous. They are using their weapons (real guns, in addition to protests) to threaten the rule of law. The government should not let them endanger the rest of us.