Making Choices during COVID-19

Much of Judaism — and life for that matter — is about making choices. Sometimes those choices are trivial, like deciding between chunky and smooth peanut butter or whether to vacation in Europe or the Caribbean.

Today, each of us are being asked to contemplate decisions and think about choices that effect you and strangers near us. These are not trivial but literally life and death. The stakes could not be higher.

Doctors are facing the real-life possibility of deciding which gravely sick patient will get the ventilator when there are not enough to satisfy the demand. Offices, companies, and corporations are making the painstaking decisions to furlough employees and deciding which of them will have that fate so that some can get paid while others can file for unemployment. Teachers with small children at home are being forced to choose between caring for them or keeping their jobs.

These smattering of examples are new forms of Sophie’s Choice. There is no correct answer and the circumstances we find ourselves in today are impossible. The thought alone causes our hearts to ache.

I do want to weigh in on an ongoing question, however, about putting the economy on the scales and the sacrifice of some – especially the senior population. Should we aim to jump-start life again with less worry about the vulnerable in our world, what will the consequences bring?

Judaism unambiguously teaches us to choose life – U’Bechartem Hayyim. Whether over money, opportunity, fame or fortune, we always choose life and safety. Further, we recite during the High Holiday liturgy, “do not forsake the elderly and cast them out. Al Tashlicheinu LeAyt Ziknah…..”

The seniors of our community gave of their time, resources and elbow-grease to ensure we would have a Temple to benefit from. They quite literally built our walls, paid for our books, bankrolled our religious school and sacrificed for our inheritance. They gave us the world we inherit replete with blessings and opportunity.

Now, in this unprecedented and unfathomable moment we are presented with hard choices: get back to work and jeopardize the safety of the vulnerable or wait it out a bit longer and provide more safety for the immune compromised and the senior citizens amongst us.

For me, it is a no-brainer. We wait and choose life. All life.

I know for sure, were the safety and health of the younger generation up to the elderly in our world, they would sacrifice (again) to look after our well being and welfare.

I want to get back to life-as-normal as much as anyone. The walls of my home are getting smaller. I go stir-crazy at times and on occasion, I lose my cool with my family. I bet you have also. It is normal during these challenging circumstances.

I am equally worried about the devastating toll COVID-19 will have on our world, besides the health and life of its victims. The economy, 22% unemployment in Israel and equal rates coming here soon, growing social service demands and lack of supplies and the mental wellness of our populace are just a few things that keep me up at night. These are real and serious concerns.

Still, while not easy, I choose life. If that means more time in isolation, slower integration, another week with no kids inside of a school, another month we cannot enter the Temple, another season of physical distance – the reward of preserving even one life is worth that sacrifice.

Parshat Vayikra, which we will read this Shabbat, is about sacrifice and the choices we make for ourselves and for God. The sacrifices we are being asked to make today are much larger than pigeons and meal offerings of the time of the Bible. They are about our livelihood and our community and what we will choose today and how that will impact tomorrow.

Please think seriously about choosing life and the sacrifice we can collectively make for our shared future.

I close this note with the most honest and sincere sentiments I have ever expressed in writing: I am so proud of all of humanity, individually and collectively for the grace and goodness we have demonstrated during this crisis.

We will get through this time. We are closer to its conclusion than ever before. We will grow from these experiences and learn from this moment. We will mature and be closer to each other and God too.

Take a moment in the midst of this pandemic while around your Shabbat dinner table and share one of the many blessings we still have on our heads with your family. Realize the gift you have in being able to choose life.

About the Author
David-Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Closter, New Jersey. He is the past President of the NY Board of Rabbis, President of the NJ Board of Rabbis and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute. Rabbi Kirshner was appointed to the New Jersey/Israel commission and is a member of the Chancellor's Rabbinic Cabinet at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
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