“Nothing is more real than the masks we make to show each other who we are.”
Christopher Barzak, The Love We Share Without Knowing
It’s been 25 years since I read The Plague by French author Albert Camus. I’ve thought about Camus’ story over the last 18 months, but even more so in the past few weeks. More than a decade ago Camp Ramah Darom suffered an outbreak of H1N1 flu; the summer of “Swine 09” was what we called it. In retrospect, the inconvenience of that time pales in comparison to COVID. But lately I’ve been thinking about a camper that summer named Mary, which is not her real name. Mary arrived at camp already visibly sick with the flu; and though it can never be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, she quite likely served as the source of H1N1 transmission to others at Ramah. Calling her Mary — as in Typhoid Mary — may seem a bit unkind, but then again no one outside of a select few know her true identity; and, in all fairness, the term Typhoid Mary generically denotes any carrier of a disease who constitutes a danger to the public because of a refusal to take appropriate precautions. In this particular case, of course, the onus of responsibility falls not upon the girl, but rather the parents who rationalized putting their daughter on a plane in the first place.
Yet Mary’s parents are but a small example of a far, far larger problem that transcends issues of health and medicine; indeed, a challenge that speaks to the ever-present tension between individual and community, self-interest and the greater good. The sage Hillel understood this polarity when he coupled his two famous questions into a single statement: אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. — If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?”
The child who singlehandedly, albeit and with no malice aforethought, infects a camp with swine flu is but one symbolic way of communicating the power we have as individuals to change the world around us. Again and again, as a rabbi, as a parent, as a human being, I see the ways in which the decisions of individuals unwittingly impact on others. There are no grand schemes involved, no cabals or conspiracies; just the simple desire to exercise autonomy, to be true to own’s self and one’s predilections. Nevertheless, to live in a community — whether a summer camp or a synagogue, a neighborhood or a city — unavoidably leads us as individuals to impact upon the lives of others. What is remarkable to me is how often we do what we do without considering the ramifications of our decisions on the larger circles in which we live.
In this week’s Torah portion we read the second paragraph of the Sh’ma, which speaks of the consequences of the choices we make: To follow God’s word results in reward, to depart from our covenantal relationship with God leads to punishment. It is vital to note the contrast between the singular and plural found in the Sh’ma. The first paragraph frames itself entirely in the singular; the second largely in the plural. In loving God with all our heart, soul, and might, which is the theme of the opening section we are called as individuals; it is meaningless to talk of society being commanded to love God in some corporate fashion, indeed, nowhere in the Torah are we ever commanded in the plural form to love God.
But, not the second paragraph. By phrasing the consequences of reward and punishment in the plural, we recall that sometimes we’re the beneficiaries of other people’s good deeds, though we’ve done nothing on our own to merit benefit. At other times we suffer for the transgressions of others, though we’ve done nothing to deserve punishment. The rain that waters the crops of the righteous bless the fields of the wicked; the fire that spreads from the house of the sinner also burns the home of the righteous neighbor. Communal providence is an alien concept to our society because we idolize individualism — and so the Sh’ma comes along to remind us how interwoven our lives and fates truly are: whether it is the second-hand smoke of a restaurant patron we breathe in that makes us sick; the endowment given by an individual to a specific university that results in a cure for a rare disease or even the simple willingness to wear a mask for the sake of protecting others from COVID, there is a complex collectivity to our lives that is as inevitable now as in ancient times. This, too, is a lesson of the Sh’ma’s second paragraph.
When enough individuals make the same decision for personal reasons, a critical mass is generated that can affect the entire community. That the Delta variant of COVID is now ravaging Jacksonville is traceable to the choice that individuals made not to be vaccinated. By the same token, Superintendent Diana Green of the Duval County public school system, who sent official notification to all principals that she would announce a mask mandate on Monday morning for all K-12 students because of the COVID surge in Jacksonville, was short-circuited by one man in Tallahassee, who has forbidden all school districts in the state from taking an action the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and every physician I’ve spoken to is urging, even begging. Children under 12 who, by definition, are unvaccinated, are significantly more vulnerable to the Delta virus. As of yesterday there were 15 children with this new form of COVID in the pediatric ICU at Wolfson. One person and one decision impacts an entire community.
We may not not relish this; we may even sometimes resent it, but it is an unavoidable and inextricable aspect of being in a relationship with another person, a family, an entire community is made vulnerable by what others do. The only remedy is to accept our responsibility in protecting one another. As Jews we know the answer to the question, “הֲשֹׁמֵ֥ר אָחִ֖י אָנֹֽכִי – Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The Talmud teaches that God created a single human being to teach that one who saves another’s life has saved an entire world. In a secular culture that values personal autonomy above virtually everything else, it is sufficient to be a world unto oneself. Within a Jewish context, however, community consists of interlocking worlds, a human ecosystem in which mutual dependencies constitute a permanent pas de deux between ourselves and our neighbors. Beyond the noise and bombast of those who peddle conspiracy theories, the quacks who tout dangerous misinformation, and those who have trouble seeing how their insistence on personal freedom saddles the rest of us with the consequences of theirs irresponsibility, it is clear what the Torah would command us to do: when the mainstream medical establishment begs us to get vaccinated, we are obligated to do so; when physicians tell us to wear everyone to wear a mask indoors during a COVID surge, we listen. Judaism commands us to protect our own health, and equally the health of others. As a Jewish institution this is what we need to do.
A little girl inadvertently brings flu to a summer camp. A man who refuses to wear a mask inadvertently gives a total stranger a life-threatening case of COVID while standing in line at Target. The good news here is that the pandemic has offered us an opportunity to go beyond the egotistical walls that trap our souls and limit the field of our spiritual vision. We can rise to the challenge. We really can.
I’ll leave the last word to Albert Camus, or, if you like, Raymond Rambert, the journalist in the novel who attempts to evade the quarantine of Oran, only to stay and make a difference in the lives of others. “Until now I always felt a stranger in this town, and that I had no concern with you people. But now that I’ve seen what I have seen, I know that I belong here whether I want it or not. This business is everybody’s business.” Indeed, it is, Monsieur Rambert; to live within community is to truly realize how community lives within us.