First a beautiful story.
In November 1938, before the onset of World War II, some Jewish children had the opportunity to escape from Nazi Germany and resettle in England through what became known as the Kindertransport.
Unfortunately, there were not enough religious families able to accept these children and other families who were willing to take them were not willing to raise the children with Jewish traditions.
Dayan Yechezkel Abramsky, of the London Beit Din, embarked on a frantic campaign to secure funding to ensure that every child would be placed in a proper Jewish environment.
Dayan Abramsky called one wealthy Jewish industrialist and begged him for a donation sizable enough to ensure that the children would be raised in a proper Jewish environment.”It is pikuach nefesh!” cried Rabbi Abramsky.
At that point, the tycoon became incensed. “Rabbi,” he said, “Please do not use that term flippantly. I know what pikuach nefesh is. It means a matter of life-and-death! When I was young, my parents were very observant. When my baby sister was young, she was very sick. We had to call the doctor, but it was on Shabbat. My father was very conscientious of the sanctity of Shabbat. He would never desecrate Shabbat. But our rabbi told us that since this is a matter of life and death, we were allowed to desecrate the Shabbat! He called it pikuach nefesh.”
“Rabbi Abramsky,” the man implored, “with all due respect. The children are already here in England. They are safe from the Nazis. The only issue is where to place them. How they are raised is not a matter of life or death!”
With that, the man politely bade farewell and hung up the phone.
That Friday evening, while the wealthy man was sitting at his Shabbat dinner, the telephone rang. He ignored it, of course. It rang again and again he ignored it. But it wouldn’t stop; it rang incessantly. Finally, deciding that it possibly was signaling a true emergency, the man got up from his meal and answered the phone.
As he listened to the voice on the other end of the line, his face went pallid. “This is Abramsky. Please. I would not call on the Sabbath if I did not think this was pikuach nefesh. Again, I implore you. We need the funds to ensure that these children will be raised as Jews. It truly is a life-and-death matter”
Needless to say, the man responded immediately [after Shabbat] to the appeal.
(From an article by Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky in the name of Rabbi Eliezer Sorotzkin of Lev l’Achim in Shabbos Candle Lighting (Summer 2012) Printed in Chabad of Arizona newsheet Feb 2020).
Pikuach Nefesh – saving a human life – is a Jewish value over almost any other (except, perhaps, the three cardinal sins of murder, adultery and idolatry). And so, surely, closing synagogues and summer camps during a pandemic is an obvious and simple method to achieve “pikuach nefesh”?
Not so fast.
“Pikuach Nefesh” literally means saving a soul, not a life. And, as Dayan Abramsky was fully aware, the Shulchan Aruch (OC 506:14) states that it is a mitzvah to break Shabbat to save a daughter who has left one’s home in order to remove herself from the Jewish faith. In other words, what is important here is, in the Torah’s words, “to live by them [i.e. the mitzvot]” (Lev. 18:5). To survive in order to live a meaningful life.
Now consider Jews across the religious spectrum. Some religious Jews depend on the synagogue and Beit Midrash to provide them with continual Jewish learning, every day. Some less observant Jewish youth find their greatest attachment to Judaism through their annual Jewish summer camp experience. Not to mention “three times a year Jews” who only attend synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – for them, the prolonged closure of synagogues will mean another whole year with minimal Jewish content.
During this pandemic we have been very quick to close synagogues and summer camps for the sake of “pikuach nefesh”. Maybe if we understood that “man does not live by bread alone” (Deut. 8:3) we would place more importance on the spiritual aspects of communal life.
For those who will say that life is still more important and that the irresponsible behaviour of some religious communities in Israel has worsened this pandemic, I will bring one small fact. Bnei Brak, with its population of 200,000, was noted as being very slow to “lock down” during the first phase of this pandemic. The result? A mortality rate of 0.02%.
I have no doubt that the price of closing down places of spiritual inspiration will be far higher.