Parshat Re’eh: Choose life, choose the vaccine

Rabbi Joshua Z. Gruenberg
Rabbi Joshua Z. Gruenberg (David Stuck)

By Rabbi Joshua Z. Gruenberg

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, the people are faced with a simple yet existential question. Do they choose a life of blessing or a life of curses? The original biblical commentators see this as the choice between the monotheism of Judaism versus the idol worship of paganism. As the Jewish community and the world around her evolved, this fundamental choice has become increasingly complicated. We know today that the big existential questions we ask ourselves about blessing and curse, right and wrong, require a certain nuance and perspective lacking in the pronouncement at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion.

As I look back on the past 18 months, I often find myself reflecting to the beginning of this pandemic when we knew so little but had to make many important decisions. But this week after reading the weekly portion, I reflected less on the decisions and more on the rhetoric we employed. Many of us referred to the pandemic as a curse or a plague, one that needed a divine intervention to be stopped. The language we used took on a biblical tone of simplicity. I found myself and others saying, “The curse is this insidious disease killing so many. The blessing, or in this instance the cure, is a human-created vaccine that will need to be created in record time and with a level of partnership never seen before in the medical world.”

It’s almost too simple, too biblical of a solution. We have fought this disease now for a year and a half. Our medical professionals have sacrificed their own well-being to bring our nation back from the brink. This should be over, and we should all be eschewing our masks so that we can once again take joy from seeing one another’s faces. In person! Yet we are not there, because there are still those who are unwilling to get vaccinated. While there are certainly people who need to be protected from the vaccine for medical conditions, many see it as their personal right to choose not to get vaccinated.

In theory this group of people is correct. It is their personal choice. However, America was not created so that the few could exercise their rights at the expense of the many. If anything, it is precisely the opposite ideology upon which this nation was founded. To create a better union, we all play a role in protecting one another and not just ourselves. Our personal rights are not absolute and are granted to us with our fellow citizens, not despite them.

In the end, we are faced with an easy decision. Get a vaccine to save many lives including one’s own or refuse to get a vaccine by standing on ceremony and place many people in death’s path. The choice is easy, whether refracted through the lens of a Jewish or American prism. It’s almost as easy as the original choice facing our ancestors in this week’s Torah portion.

Rabbi Joshua Z. Gruenberg is the senior rabbi at Chizuk Amuno Congregation.

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