Parashat Mattot Masei
July 18, 2020
There are so many controversies swirling around our country. It is hard to get one’s brain wrapped around one before we have moved on to the next one. There is one controversy that I want to take some time to focus our attention on because the underlaying issues keep surfacing as the presenting issues change.
The issue I call your attention to is that of wearing masks. I will confess that I have barely been in any store to see it directly, but there are ample reports on social media about confrontations taking places in which people walk into stores without wearing a mask. It is not uncommon that a scene ensues in which people assert their right not to don a mask. They explain that it is a matter of their personal freedom to choose not to wear one. When governments have established a mandate, as the Minnetonka City Counsel did this week, the response from some is that it is impinging on their liberty. They appeal to that most venerated document the US Constitution that declares:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
This debate has been playing out all over the US. This week the Governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, who has encouraged the voluntary wearing of mask for public safety, voided orders from 15 local governments, asserting that it is an infringement on people’s freedom to require them to wear a mask that even he agrees would protect all involved from COVID-19. And yesterday Democratic Gov. Tim Walz announced that he has not made a decision on issuing a state wide facemask mandate to control the spread of COVID-19 because he is hoping that, rather than relying on a unilateral an Executive order, he can get Republicans to join him in creating such an ordinance.
I find it appalling that so basic a health practice as the wearing of masks has become a political football and a badge for some of political identification. While there were mixed messages early in the pandemic about the value of wearing masks there is no real debate about the value of wearing masks in order to maintain the health of the public and contain the disease. Four days ago. The Director of the national Center for Disease Control Dr Robert Redfield stated, “We are not defenseless against COVID-19. Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow the spread of the virus- particularly when used universally within a community setting.” In an interview with the Journal of the American Medical Association, the CDC’s Redfield asserted that “universal face coverings in public would help get the pandemic under control within 4 to 8 weeks.” As each day new records are broken in this country for the number of COVID-19 cases that total 3.5 million and more than 135,000 deaths, among the highest rates in the world, I find it quite shocking that there are those who world refuse to wear a mask on the basis of asserting their personal freedom.
I am once again pleased to be able to tell you that our MN Rabbinical Assoc, under the leadership of our Rabbi Weininger and Rabbi Jill Crimmings of Bet Shalom, issued a statement a few days ago advocating for mandates requiring the wearing masks. (Pull it up on the screen). Thank you to our member Rabbi Ryan Dulkin who drafted this statement, which is deeply grounded in Jewish teaching about the obligation we have “to take responsibility not only for ourselves, but for one another.” The letter is filled with biblical and rabbinic references showing that we have “to take responsibility not only for ourselves, but for one another” represents the fundamental thrust of our faith.
Let’s take a moment to look at mitzvah ma’akeh, with which you may be less familiar than other texts to which it refers. This is the biblical requirement from Deut 22:8 that commands a homeowner to erect parapets (railings) around the roof of one’s house to prevent someone from falling off. You might find that odd wondering what they were doing on the roof of the house to begin with? Houses in rabbinic times had flat roofs and this meant that the homeowner even had a positive obligation to protect someone who invited himself to sleep on the roof of the house. This mitzvah ma’akeh of parapets is applied widely to support the obligation that one must protect oneself and others from harm, to the best of one’s ability. This principle is hard wired into the very “DNA” of the Jewish people, which is in a covenantal relationship with God (as pointed out in my intro to Ahava Rabbah and to the Haftarah).
This week’s first portion Mattot has a great example of communal responsibility. I asked you to take a look on Numbers 32 when the Israelites’ journey through the desert has finally brought them to the border of Canaan, on the eastern side of the Jordan River.
We encounter the incident of the Reubenites and the Gadites who are said to be cattle herders. They claim that the land east of the Jordan is just perfect for the purpose of raising cattle so they tell Moses, 32:5 “It would be a favor to us if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan.”
Moshe responded to the tribes of Reuven and Gad saying, “Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?’ I will spare you Moishe’s long speech berating them for looking out for their own welfare, rather than for the entirety of the nation and the dire consequences they and all Israel will experience if they make such a selfish choice. The rabbis heap further scorn on the greed of these tribes saying in Midrash HaGadol that these tribes did not have more cattle than the other tribes, “they just spent more time thinking about their cattle.” See Etz Hayim p. 951. The Reubenites and the Gadites shrink under Moshe’s withering critique and respond that of course they will cross over to join in the battle together with the rest of the tribes of Israel, they just want to be able to return to this area and have it as their portion.
The message is clear that central to the Jewish ethos is an expectation that one will focus on the community’s wellbeing and not just on one’s own. This is the furthest thing from the language we bear bandied about in discussion of health mandates for wearing masks that will protect everyone as being an infringement of my freedoms.
In thinking about this approach to living that honors the preciousness of every individual but demands responsibilities for the whole nation I turned to a wonderful chapter of my teacher Rabbi Elliot Dorff, To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics, JPS 2002 . It one of three volumes on Jewish ethics published in 2002 by the Jewish Publication Society. It remains an essential set for one’s Jewish library. In the opening chapter Rabbi Dorff explores the “Fundamental Beliefs That Guide Jewish Social Ethics.”
In the chapter he describes exactly how the Jewish, Christian and American secular stories, graphically portray each tradition's beliefs about the individual, society, and the goal of living. p. 3
…the Jewish and American understandings of the nature of community and of the status of the individual within the community have some important similarities. In the minds of many American Jews, these mask the significant differences between the two concepts. Indeed, many American Jews want to believe that their Jewish self and their American self fit neatly together, like hand in glove, with no contradictions or even tensions. As we have seen, though, American ideology depicts the community in a "thin" sense, by which membership is completely voluntary and may be revoked by the individual at any time and by which the purpose of the community is predominantly pragmatic. In contrast, Judaism's sense of community is "thick," which means that its members are organically part of the communal corpus and cannot sever themselves from it and that the purpose of the community, while partially pragmatic, is essentially theological, “to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (Ex 19:6) p. 25-26
It is no wonder that we sometimes feel pulled as American Jews between the individual thrust of Americanism holding up as a model the idea of rugged individualism and the Jewish ideal of communal obligation. In the case of the current controversy over requiring the wearing of masks we can see the evidence that the assertion of individual freedom over communal responsibility can leave many people sick, or even dead.
We need to follow Dr Redfield’s wise counsel, “All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.”
On the clear basis of Jewish law, I and our MN Rabbinical Association, with no hesitation say that we are all obligated as Jews to wear masks to protect ourselves, our neighbors and our world. We need to send that strong and clear message to ALL of our elected representatives.
Rabbi Harold J. Kravitz
Adath Jeshurun Congregation
Minnesota Rabbinical Association Advocates For Mask Mandate 7/14/20
My eyes pine away from affliction; I call to You, O LORD, each day; I stretch out my hands to You” (Psalm 88:10)
The Minnesota Rabbinical Association calls on our governor, lieutenant governor, and elected leaders to put in place all reasonable measures that will help our community reduce the spread of COVID-19, particularly by mandating the wearing of face coverings in public.
Our world is experiencing the most widely felt international plague in a century. Many states in our country are witnessing record new cases daily. We are losing loved ones to COVID-19, many more are experiencing debilitating illness, our livelihoods are under threat, and our children’s education and well-being are at stake.
Communal challenges require communal responses. We must take responsibility not only for ourselves, but for one another.
The core of Jewish tradition centers on the value of life (Deuteronomy 30:19). The saving of life supersedes all other religious duties (Mishneh Torah, Shabbat 2:1). Moreover, Jewish tradition teaches that “a person should never remain in a state of danger and say, ‘a miracle will be performed on my behalf ’” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 32a).
We look to our sacred Scriptures for guidance. Face coverings fulfill the mandate set out in the book of Deuteronomy 22:8, which commands home builders to erect parapets around a roof to prevent anyone from falling from it. Jewish tradition understands this verse to be broadly applicable to any reasonable measure that will protect public safety.
We have learned that those infected with COVID-19 can spread the disease before they are symptomatic, which makes wearing a face covering in public all the more crucial. We find support for this practice in the words of Leviticus 19:14, “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the LORD.” If we work together, we can change the dangerous trajectory we are on. Let us be strong, and let us strengthen one another.
Rabbi Kassel Abelson, Rabbi Esther Adler, Rabbi Morris Allen, Rabbi Shalom Resnick Bell, Rabbi Norman Cohen, Rabbi Jill Crimmings, Rabbi Barry Cytron, Rabbi Alexander Davis, Rabbi Max Davis, Rabbi Ryan Dulkin, Rabbi Shosh Dworsky, Rabbi Joseph Edelheit, Rabbi Avraham Ettedgui, Rabbi Jeremy Fine, Rabbi Jennifer Hartman, Rabbi Sim Glaser, Rabbi Yosi Gordon, Rabbi Tamar Grimm, Rabbi Hayim Herring, Rabbi Harold Kravitz, Rabbi Jason Klein, Rabbi Michael Adam Latz, Rabbi Arielle Lekach-Rosenberg, Rabbi Lynn Liberman, Rabbi David Locketz, Rabbi Alan Shavit-Lonstein, Rabbi Micah Miller, Rabbi Tobias Divack Moss, Rabbi Cathy Nemiroff, Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman, Rabbi Avi Olitzky, Rabbi Debra Rappaport, Rabbi Adam Rubin, Rabbi Jeffrey Schein, Rabbi Adam Spilker, Rabbi David Steinberg, Rabbi Sharon Stiefel, Rabbi David Thomas, Rabbi Heidi Waldmann, Rabbi Aaron Weininger, Rabbi Michelle Werner, and Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman