As we find ourselves in the middle of a pandemic, it’s worth wondering what it means to occupy the middle. The columnist Molly Roberts recently made an insightful observation. She wrote that the “coronavirus is the Goldilocks amount of deadly: not too lethal (then the virus would kill people too fast and too furiously for the virus to replicate), not too mild (then we could simply get ill, build herd immunity, and bid the menace goodbye), but just right for a pandemic.” And it seems to me that our elected officials are now searching for the Goldilocks amount of antidote. Open the economy too quickly and we risk unleashing a second wave of the virus; open too slowly and we risk crushing people under the weight of financial hardship.
The Rambam long ago popularized the notion of a golden mean wherein the goal is to achieve balance between two extremes. And this is often a governing principle in Jewish tradition. But not always.
I’m reminded of a conversation I once heard at the home of the late Rabbi Yehudah Cooperman, of blessed memory. One of his guests mentioned off-handedly that he could never be accused of extremism; his approach was always to stay in the middle of the road. Citing the Kotzker Rebbe, Rav Cooperman quipped, “Have you ever looked in the middle of the road? The horses walk in the middle of the road. The people walk on the sides.” Not every consideration is co-equal.
I don’t envy today’s decision-makers. They’re working under great stress with woefully imperfect information. But it’s important to note that the halakha imagines very few values that supersede the ethic of preserving life. And issues that pose a danger to human health are accorded a category all their own. The Taz writes, for instance, that the normal laws of bittul (the notion that small quantities of a problematic substance can be overwhelmed by larger quantities) are entirely suspended when there is a risk to one’s health.
So perhaps it’s worth remembering that the story of Goldilocks ends badly. Chairs are damaged, porridge is pilfered and a little girl is so startled that she jumps out of a window. We’ll need to balance lots of competing values before this pandemic has passed. But we’ll have our thumb on the scale when we do. It will mean that we have to accept the responsibility of alleviating the financial stress of more Americans than we can count. But if proceeding with caution means that we will have saved more lives, that will ultimately spell a happier ending to this tale.