When I was a young rabbinic student (a long time ago), I worked at a Jewish summer camp for two years where I would play a round of tennis before attending Shabbat morning services. I would call this “Tennis and Torah,” because I was able to fulfill both my physical and spiritual needs on those Shabbat mornings!
Since then, I have learned that the Torah embodies certain Jewish values which are essential. One of them is the sanctity of human life.
Tennis and Torah are very much in the news in recent days because of the strange episode of the tennis star Novak Djokovic trying to get into the Australian Open in Melbourne even though he was not vaccinated. The tennis authorities in Australia seemed to want him there, despite everything. But Torah (Hebrew for “Teaching”) was very clear. The teachings of Judaism—as well as the teachings of medical science and public health—were obvious. This was not to be allowed. It was clear beyond any reasonable doubt that this was dangerous to the health of the public.
This went all the way to a federal court in Australia, which delivered its unanimous verdict. Djokovic—the Serbian tennis player who became famous for becoming one of the leading anti-vaxxers in the world during these two years of the COVID-19 pandemic—has been refused entry to Australia! I say: Good for the justice system and congratulations to the Australian government! You are a model for the rest of the world! You made the correct decision, both on legal and moral grounds.
I will confess that I am not a great fan of Mr. Djokovic, even though he is a great tennis player. He doesn’t have the charm or the great personality of Roger Federer or Raphael Nadal. But his recent behavior with regard to refusing to get vaccinated against covid-19 has enraged me—and millions of people around the world—who are suffering from the physical and psychological ramifications of the pandemic, from quarantines imposed by governments or self-imposed due to fear of getting infected by the highly contagious omicron variant, and from the havoc which is being inflicted on our health care systems do to irresponsible, egotistical and self-serving anti-vaxxers like Djokovic.
According to reports in the press, Djokovic not only refused to get vaccinated – for his own health and for the protection of all those with whom he would come into contact – but he also appeared in public after he had the virus, thus possibly infecting others. This proved that he is a morally flawed individual, without a shred of responsibility for how his behavior affects other human beings on this planet.
This is the great sin of the anti-vaxxers like Djokovic. If they think that their decisions are solely about personal autonomy or individual freedom, they are gravely mistaken. Indeed, their irresponsible behavior has caused many people to go to their graves prematurely, not to mention the millions of unnecessary hospitalizations around the world. Today, the overwhelming majority of people who are being hospitalized for various variants of the virus are people who have irresponsibly not gotten the vaccine that could have prevented them from getting sick or dying!
I know for a fact that many people in the medical community are fed up with their hospitals being filled by people who didn’t get a vaccine against this virus. Many doctors are very upset with this phenomenon. Not only could they have spared the medical teams the time and energy of taking care of them, but they are doing a great disservice to themselves and their loved ones.
I asked a doctor friend who works at a major hospital in Boston to tell me what he sees from his vantage point and this is what he told me:
Many of those unvaccinated people will paradoxically rely on science for other parts of dealing with the pandemic. They go for periodic testing to see if they have been infected, they take certain drugs that we prescribe for them. But they won’t take a vaccine?! I just don’t get it!
Neither do I. I don’t understand these people. Not only because they don’t take care of their own health in a responsible manner, but more because they don’t seem to give a damn about the health of the rest of us and of their impact upon society. This pandemic could have been mostly conquered if the anti-vaxxers had not been so demonic and dangerous, causing millions of people to refuse to be vaccinated around the world. If everyone would have done the intelligent thing by simply getting the little jab in their arm, there would have been much less illness and death in the world from this virus during the last two years.
Often when I think about this problem, I realize that it all comes down to education. So many millions of people apparently have not received good, modern, rational, basic scientific educations. This is why so many of them seem to reject the best recommendations of modern science that have brought us these life-saving vaccines. If it is not too late, our education systems have to take a careful look at what has gone wrong, and see if anything can be done to correct this.
But this is not just a problem of education. It is also a problem for religious leaders and for ethicists.
What Djokovic did wrong by trying to sneak into Australia unvaccinated was not just a legal issue. It was a deeply moral problem. All he cared about was himself, and his desire to win another tennis tournament (and millions of more dollars). But he did not seem to care about the general public. Nor did he realize that the impact of his unethical actions would reverberate around the world and give more ammunition to the irrational rhetoric of the anti-vaxxers.
In the end, one needs to combine tennis with Torah, the ethical teachings that flow from studying the Bible (and for Jews, this includes the rabbinic tradition). The Torah clearly teaches that the sanctity of human life is a fundamental value, for all human beings, including great tennis players.
One who saves a single life is as if he has saved the entire world. (The Talmud and the Koran)