In this week’s Torah portion, Emor, God commands Moses to clearly communicate (emor) to the young Israelite community the ways in which they are to live. God is very specific about these commandments, which include holidays, calendar, laws dealing with profanity, murder, and the maiming of others. Oh, how I wish that today we could receive such clear-cut instructions from our government regarding the current crisis we are all facing. We are all in it together. Rich or poor, the virus does not know the difference. During this pandemic, our governors, like Moses, find themselves speaking to constituents to outline the ways in which our society must now exist. Scientific data supports that wearing masks and social distancing protects those who are most vulnerable from silent carriers. Data also shows that the countries whose governments have enacted no-compromise safety policies have been able to open back up much more quickly. Just recently, Italy announced that they are in Phase 2 of their COVID-19 response, which allows their pizza parlors to reopen for the first time in months.
I fear that the United States will not have a similarly smooth transition away from social distancing. My concern stems from the fact that many citizens are not complying with the messages given by our leaders. At the end of last week, Ohio’s governor caved to protestors who refused to wear masks and, under the guise of protecting civil liberties, relaxed the state’s safety policies.
This was upsetting to me for two reasons. The first reason is that this decision will likely undo much of the progress Ohio has been making at flattening its curve and containing the virus. The second reason is the inevitable danger this “protection of civil liberties” will pose to vulnerable citizens. Allowing people to interact without masks could be fatal. In this light, protecting the civil liberties of those who want to flout social safety conventions jeopardizes the basic civil liberties of those who could actually die if a silent COVID-19 carrier transmits it to them while not wearing a mask. Isn’t the safety of the vulnerable more important than the temporary discomfort of wearing a mask? Is it not our duty to do everything we possibly can to keep everyone, including those with preexisting conditions, the elderly, and the medical workers on the front lines safe? How can we possibly expect us and our loved ones to stay safe if we refuse to listen to emor, the speech of our leaders, and practice safety policies whose efficacy has been statistically proven?
My fear is that our desire for absolute freedoms combined with our unwillingness to experience temporary discomfort will cause an overwhelming number of preventable deaths. This week the White House projects that the death toll from COVID-19 will double by June. In addition, there is new data suggesting that the “herd immunity” theory is not holding true. These new developments underscore the necessity of exercising caution during this time for both yourself and others.
God gave Moses social rules and guidelines to relay to the Israelites in order to build a strong, holy society. If we all continue to live as if we are not part of a greater collective, we all will suffer. We must instead do as the Israelites did, and listen to our leaders. We must put on our masks, social distance, and simply remind ourselves that this is not forever. The more we work to flatten the curve, the safer our world will be.
Let us remember that this is not a political issue, but rather, it’s a societal one. If we all work together as a society, we will be able to return to normalcy. It is my hope and prayer that we will take heed, put on our masks when we go out in public, and follow the law. Most importantly, I hope we all kindly encourage our friends and neighbors to maintain safe COVID-19 practices. For, it is through your speech that, like Moses, you can help others to live safely in our society.
I would not be worth my salt as a cantor if I did not augment these words with music. To highlight some of the best of humanity during this trying time, Ross and I made a music video, set to the song “Our Town” by Randy Newman, outlining the extraordinary things happening in our communities. I hope the video can give you comfort as you navigate our new normal.