In My Own Words: Responsibility and illness by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

As a person who’s faced health challenges, I dislike blaming people for the illnesses they suffer. Over the years, I’ve heard everything from “personality types that lead to cancer” to “we don’t know what’s wrong so it must be your own fault.” Sometimes our bodies malfunction or medical science isn’t precise enough to discover what’s wrong. I’ve known people who waited decades for a correct diagnosis, and some who never received one. 

That said, we do have a responsibility to take care of ourselves as best we can. I’m not talking about not indulging in fast food or sweets once in awhile. I believe in moderation, and that includes being moderate in your moderation. But if you know that eating something is going to make you ill and you eat it anyway, it’s much harder to have sympathy for you. I’m not known for my patience with people suffering from hangovers: I’ve spent too much time feeling lousy when I haven’t done anything to cause it to waste energy on folks who did it to themselves.

If you’re thinking I’m going to connect this to the COVID-19 crisis, you are correct. It is possible to catch COVID through no fault of your own: sometimes it’s a matter of luck – of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That was especially true when the COVID crisis first began and it’s heartbreaking to think of the people who died because we knew so little about how the disease spreads. But we now know more and we have a responsibility to ourselves and our community to take precautions. 

Think of it this way: What if someone knows they’ll die if they eat a certain food? It’s one thing if they accidentally eat it. But what if they deliberately eat it? Shouldn’t they be blaming themselves for what happens? We don’t legislate against this because it only affects them. But we do legislate against drunk drivers. Those drivers might say they were too drunk to know that they shouldn’t be driving and are therefore not responsible for their actions. Yet, as a society, we’ve decided they are. The societal demand is not that they don’t drink; that’s up to them. But we do say that they’re responsible for what happens if they get behind the wheel of a car because that affects other people.
So, if I host a big event and tell people not to wear masks, am I responsible if those attending get ill? If I take no precautions – if I go to large gatherings where no one wears a mask and no one social distances – am I responsible for my own illness? If I test positive for COVID and go out in public without a mask, am I responsible if someone else becomes sick? I would say, yes, I am. And if someone dies because of that, then I am guilty of their death – maybe not legally, but definitely morally.

Our moral responsibility to others is based on Jewish law. Deuteronomy 22:8 tells us that when we build a new house, we must build a fence around the rooftop so we don’t acquire blood guilt. Rooftops in those days were flat and, if there was no fence around the edge of it, someone could fall off. Note that it is not their fault if they fall: it is our responsibility to prevent the possibility of that fall. That means that we are commanded to do everything we can to prevent people from dying. The principle of pikuach nefesh, of saving a life, overrides almost every other commandment, including breaking the laws of Shabbat. Wearing a mask and keeping social distance are ways of practicing this important Jewish principle.

We have a responsibility to our community. Yes, people are sick of the precautions and are tired of their lives revolving around COVID. But, as of this writing, nearly 220,000 Americans have died because of this illness. We’re talking 220,000 deaths in less than 10 months and there are more to come. As a proud citizen of this country and a practicing Jew, I want to do what I can to protect my friends and neighbors. Wear a mask; social distance; take precautions. If you do get ill, I’ll offer prayers for your recovery and help as best I can. But, please, for the sake of everyone, stay as safe as you can.