By Rabbi Ari Plost
As many of us shelter at home and wait for an end to the pandemic, conversing by video, phone, or text, it’s tempting to feel as though the world outside our walls is unreal, and what we do doesn’t affect it.
This week’s Torah portion, Achrei Mot-Kedoshim, lists rules and laws for life within the walls of our homes, and the world outside: about Yom Kippur, sacrifice and food, sexual offenses, and living a holy life. I imagine that, if during the days of Talmud they had manufactured N95 face masks, we would have some useful guidance: Some say in Masechet HaMask, you can still use the N95 if one of the strings is uneven, others say no … Can you say the bracha to put on the mask before you leave the house, but if you have forgotten you can…
Of course, it is not the Torah that tells us to wear masks, but Gov. Larry Hogan. And so we do what we should. Despite limitations, we strive in as many ways as we can to perform mitzvahs and practice Judaism.
Recently, I wore a mask while officiating at a funeral. The number of mourners was limited, and social distancing observed. I stood beside the grave, more than 10 feet from the mourners. I began to worry whether those gathered would hear me, so I took my mask off.
Afterward, I placed a stone on a nearby grave. Growing up, I’d been taught not to pick flowers for a gravesite because it meant killing a living thing as a gift to the dead, and that we should value life above all things. At that moment, I reconsidered for the next time:
Taking off the mask, even though I was far away, might have meant risking my own life, and maybe even that of others unnecessarily.
At the heart of this week’s portion is the command “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live: I am the Lord” (Lev 18: 5). One understanding of this verse is that following our observances helps us to live, just as we offer in our evening prayer, Ahavat Olam: “We will rejoice in Your Torah for ever. Day and night we will reflect on them for they are our life and doing them lengthens our days.”
Another commentator in the Talmud reads the verse to mean, “That he shall live by them, and not that he shall die by them” (Yoma 85b). As important as our observances may be, they should not cost a life.
This is the core principle of pikuach nefesh, that a life in danger takes precedence even over observing Shabbat or the other commandments and commitments. I am inspired by all of the Jewish communities undertaking innovative and courageous approaches to fulfill our mitzvot. We all are aware that the choices we make within the walls of our homes affect those who live outside them. And even if we feel strained or even a sense of sacrilege to not assemble at our synagogues, by obeying the guidance of public health officials, we are choosing life.
Rabbi Ari Plost is the rabbi at Congregation B’nai Abraham in Hagerstown.