By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
While there are many political and social issues facing us in 2022, it’s a personal one that I can’t stop thinking about. To put this in perspective: the last few weeks of December were extremely difficult in my chaplaincy work with far too many deaths for reasons not related to COVID. I think it was coping with the pain others were feeling that led to my reaction to another event, one that left me crying on New Year’s Eve because even though it occurred a week before, the sorrow still overwhelmed me.
A friend of my brother passed away. They’d been friends since grade school and my brother saw him almost every time he visited this area. His friend was 68 years old, had diabetes and was anti-vaccine. He died of COVID on Christmas Day. I write Christmas Day rather than December 25 because he and his family are Christian, and his children and grandchildren will have to live knowing he died unnecessarily on a day that should have been a celebration.
I have no idea why he was anti-vaccine. He was my brother’s friend, so I can’t say that I knew him well. But his death really hit me hard: not just the futility of dying when something as easy as a shot could have prevented it, but the reality it brings about how intelligent people can deny reality. If I’m honest, it’s also because he was someone I knew personally, not a self-aggrandizing politician, celebrity or newscaster, but an ordinary person whose loss mostly matters to family and friends.
When one of those famous folks who preached against vaccines dies, I have sometimes thought “couldn’t happen to a nicer person,” even as I feel ashamed of my reaction. But I feel that way because of other people who may have died because they believed that politician or celebrity and refused to get vaccinated. Think of the many people who are grieving who wouldn’t have had to. There is so much loss and sorrow in the world that we can do nothing about, so why not try to prevent loss when it is possible?
Pikuach nefesh, the idea that one can do almost anything to save a life, is one of the fundamental principles of Judaism. Perhaps that’s why this bothers me so much, as does the fact that certain Jewish groups have very low vaccination rates. In the Talmud, we are told that while we should believe God will help us, we should not depend on God’s intervention. Medical advances are welcomed in Judaism. A big ethical debate in contemporary times is about the use of artificial means to keep people alive: the more Orthodox Jewish opinion is that these machines should generally be used. So, if machines are OK to keep someone alive, is not a shot that prevents an illness in the first place just as important, and far easier to manage?
But even these thoughts relate back to my personal problem: there has just been too much death this past year. I would love to end this column on an upbeat note, but I fear there may be too much death in this new year, as well. So, please, let those you love know how much you love them. And if they haven’t been vaccinated, please tell them how much you will miss them if they become sick with COVID and die. As the Talmud says, “Whoever saves a single life is considered by scripture to have saved the whole world.”