Don’t Sink the Boat

I was recently outside a restaurant, masked, waiting for food to take out. A man standing at least 6 feet away and masked said, “Do you ever think this will end?” I said, “It will end when people realize it is not about being a Democrat or a Republican. It is not about rights or freedom. It’s about being a human being caring for others.” I then told him the story of three men in a rowboat and one of them is drilling a hole under his seat. When the other two asked him, “What are you doing?,” he responded, “What’s it to you? The hole is under my seat.”

I find it interesting that there are some people who say they will not wear a mask because it is their right to say they will not wear one. While that it theoretically true, for we are all free to determine what we will do and not do, when we live in society, this is no longer practically or legally operative.

There were 16th, 17th and 18th century thinkers, such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote about what is called, “The Social Contract.” They believed that there is an implicit agreement among the members of a society to cooperate for social benefits, for example, by sacrificing some individual freedom for the protection of all.

The minute we live with another human being there is both an implicit and explicit agreement that each of us is going to give up certain freedoms, rights if you wish, so that the two of us can live together. This is more so true when living in a community, a town, a city or a nation.

As quoted in an article in Wikipedia on the “Social Contract”: “Social contract arguments typically posit that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of the ruler or magistrate (or to the decision of a majority), in exchange for protection of their remaining rights.”

Judaism and a Jewish society are based on Torah law and Torah law can be seen as the foundation for this doctrine of the “Social Contract.” When Moses asked the Israelites if they were prepared to follow the law and they answered, “We will do everything the LORD has said” (Exodus 19:8) they were committing themselves to God’s law. This meant that although free to disobey the Torah, they were committing themselves, as individuals in a community, to give up individual rights of freedom to live with others in peace.

After reading in Leviticus [19:16], “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed,” or in Leviticus [19:18] “Love your neighbor as you love yourselves,” we must immediately understand that these divine commandments will necessitate a giving up of our freedoms to enact them. I have the right to ignore a person lying bleeding on the street, but Torah law tells me that to walk by that person and ignore him or her is violating God’s obligations upon each of us to be there for others. I give up my personal right just to keep walking by to be there for someone else in their time of need.

I would have to say that it is unJewish not to wear a mask when doing so puts others at risk. Our tradition and its laws teach us that we are responsible for each other and each other’s welfare. Whereas Hillel was correct when he said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me,” I think the obverse is also true, “If I am not for the other person, who will be for him or her, or for me!”

I believe that this pandemic will certainly end when there is a vaccine that — by the way — everyone must agree to take regardless of the right not to, but also, when everyone realizes that what each of us does every minute effects someone else either negatively or positively. Is this a pipe dream of mine? Maybe. Possibly the only way this will happen will be when the Mashiach comes and awakens humanity to this inalienable truth; we are all responsible for each other.

Do not be the person drilling the hole under your seat. Be the person who says, “Let us all row this boat together and get home safely.”

This posting was recently posted on and is here with its permission.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Moss served as rabbi to B'nai Israel, Oakdale, NY for 47 years. He was a chaplain at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, NY for 30 years and a chaplain to the Suffolk County Police Dept. for 36 years. He was chair of the county Human Rights Commission for 28 years.
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