Robert Harris
A Rabbi and Professor at Jewish Theological Seminary

An Overriding Principle: “These Are My Commandments — Live!”

In the midst of what modern Bible scholars call the Holiness Code, the Torah commands the Israelite nation, “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which humankind shall live: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 18:5).

Ignoring or unaware of the specific context in which this verse is found, the Talmud (Yoma 85b) famously offers this famous midrashic explanation as a kind of general, overarching principle:

Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: If I would have been there among those Sages who debated [the implications of this verse],I would have said that my proof is preferable to theirs, as it states: You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which humankind shall live — and not that he should die by them.  

The English edition at the popular Sefaria website adds an explanatory comment that is based on the commentaries of the recently deceased master teacher R. Adin Steinsaltz, z”l: “In all circumstances, one must take care not to die as a result of fulfilling the mitzvot.”

This midrash is, in fact, one of the sources of the prominent concern for pikuach nefesh, the sanctity of human life and the imperative to safeguard it in virtually all circumstances.  Jewish Sages throughout the generations have expressed this value as its most sacred regard for the importance to save human life.  And in fact, the principle made its way into all of the principal codes of Jewish Law, and is still expected to guide our conduct today when making decisions might result in the loss of human life.

When I was in rabbinical school, having learned the rules as laid down by maran, our teacher, Rabbi Yosef Karo, in the Shulhan Arukh, we were also instructed to pay close attention to the occasional demurrals by the Ashkenazic Rabbi Moshe Isserles, who sometimes either ruled more stringently than his Sephardic colleague, or more leniently.  In the case of this ruling, we joked, the European Rabbi Isserles had ruled, “…but in our countries, it is our custom to die!”

A morose joke, to be sure. But now it is my fear that the attitude that animated that joke is becoming not only the “law of the land,” but also the attitude of Jewish authorities, as well.

It is patently obvious to us all that we are living in dangerous times:  faced as we are by the Coronavirus, we are all fearful of contracting the disease it carries, Covid 19 and facing the dire consequences of suffering and possible death.  We have quarantined our homes and families, shuttered our schools and places of worship, and closed virtually all businesses.  The fortunate ones among us telecommute and zoom and conduct our business by long distance.  The less fortunate have been furloughed or outright fired and subsist by means of government bailouts and loans.  And the “heroes,” as we have been increasingly calling them, staff our hospitals and clinics, our factories and grocery stores — all of our workers in “essential industries” whose dedication to their job is crucially helping to maintain any sense of “normal” in our society.  Moreover, with schools closed, many parents are faced with the challenges of supervising, educating and entertaining their children at the very times that their bosses expect them to be productively engaged in their work.  As the months have gone by since the shut down, with no end in sight, it is understandable that parents want schools to open, so that their children can get back to what they are supposed to be doing — and so they, the parents, can return to what they are supposed to be doing.  At this time, some schools have opened up, and others have decided to teach remotely only.

But here is my concern:  what all advocates of reopening our schools and businesses are overlooking (or are willing to overlook) is that the circumstances that led to the shut down this past March still obtain!  The disease is still rampant, there is as yet neither vaccine nor a viral suppressant treatment.  I am not stating anything that you don’t already know.  But what I find amazing — and so very troubling! — is that people in authority, both in government and in the corporate world, are so cavalier with respect to both children and to the adults (teachers, school administrators and other personnel) who are charged with taking care of them.  How many of them are we willing to risk?  How many have to test positive, or become ill, or — God forbid — die, before we re-close the schools?!  For we know that almost of a certainty this will happen; we are not living in New Zealand, whose wise leadership energetically took all available steps to safeguard its population.  Instead, we live in a society whose leaders have fumbled, bumbled and denied, who have missed every opportunity to take charge in a responsible way to safeguard its citizenry.  Some of these leaders still now callously refuse to require masks in public, or follow any sensible guidelines in tracking the spread of the disease; these are among those who have called for the reopening of schools and businesses.  We are, essentially, being asked to “tough it out” and absorb terrible losses in the interest of  “opening up our economy” again.

Some speak about Covid 19 in the figurative language of a war, of a battle to be fought.  and it is true that in actual war, commanders are often faced with the responsibility of endangering the lives of the soldiers whom they command.  The planners of the Normandy invasion knew that, however important the plan and vital to the war effort, even in a successful invasion, the Allies would suffers thousands of casualties.  But such is the nature of war that decisions like these need to be made, despite the certainty of the casualties.  But the people responsible for the decision to open our schools are not fighting that kind of war, nor ought children – children! – be considered as fighters in that war.  It should be obvious that schools are not “essential industries” such as the ones providing our society with power, and water, and food, and health care.  We have already proven that we can educate our children via Zoom and home schooling, however inferior and inconvenient that may be.  Is anything worth the risk to our children, not to mention, our teachers, the very people tasked with the most sacred of tasks according to Jewish tradition.

“The sum of the matter, when all is said and done…” (Koheleth 12:13), our primary job during the coming year is:   to live!  Everything else, all important things, are nonetheless secondary:  educating our children, opening even non-essential businesses, all of these are worthwhile goals — but none is as important as living.

Wishing us all a year of life and good health, happiness and peace:  Le-shanah tovah tikateivu!

About the Author
Robert A. Harris is Professor of Bible at The Jewish Theological Seminary, teaching courses in biblical literature and commentary, particularly medieval Jewish biblical exegesis, and is Chair of the Bible Department. Dr. Harris has written several books, and has published many studies in the history of medieval Biblical exegesis in both American and Israeli journals. He also lectures on biblical narrative and Jewish liturgy in congregations and adult education institutes around the country. Dr. Harris has lectured as a visiting professor at universities in Europe and Israel, and has served as a rabbi in several congregations in the United States and Israel.
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