Tipping the balance for the good of the community (Daf Yomi Peschim 79)

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“The individual cannot tip the balance of the entire public.”

A friend sent me today an article about a study conducted in Brazil that examined traits associated with people who refuse to wear masks or maintain social distancing. (see https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0191886920305377) The study found that people who demonstrate a lack of empathy toward others, and high risk-taking traits were less likely to comply with health and safety guidelines. The study found that people with these traits are less concerned with exposing others to risks associated with contracting COVID-19 and have a higher tendency to act out of self-interest.

We have been told from the beginning of the pandemic that in order to protect our communities and our loved ones from disease and an untimely death, that we must wear masks in public (and these days, I am double masking), maintain social distancing and wash our hands often. And yet, millions of people in the United States traveled over the holidays even though they were warned not to, and I fear they have huddled together in their living rooms shouting over each other in boisterous approval or disapproval of last night’s Super Bowl plays.

There are demonstrations against wearing masks across the country, and my heart lost a beat when I saw photos of people in Tampa, Florida visiting a National Football League exhibit without masks. I love my country and want us to find a way back from this horrific pandemic. But I worry when I read the statistics of people who traveled on the holidays, or who ignore social distancing rules and refuse to wear masks because they do not believe in them, that we have somehow lost our empathy for each other.

I read today’s Daf Yomi against the backdrop of mask-refuseniks. The text discusses what happens if a community is as a whole ritually impure ahead of the Passover holiday. There are two Passovers: the first holiday and a second one a month later that is a form of make-up for those who were disqualified during the first one. We are told that if the entire community is impure, there is no need to wait a month until the second Pesah and everyone can partake in the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb in a communal state of impurity.

This pronouncement holds true if the entire community is impure, or if the priests are all impure and the community is pure. If the community is impure and the priests and sacred vessels are pure, if the community is pure and the priests and their vessels are impure, or if everyone is pure but the vessels are impure, the sacrifice can proceed in a state of impurity. We are presented with a basic principle: “a communal offering, which is sacrificed even in a state of ritual impurity, is not divided.” In light of this statement, could we have done a better job pushing back the coronavirus if we were not so divided as a community?

We are presented with a scenario that is not all that different from how many of our communities are divided down partisan lines, with somehow the wearing of a mask for health and safety reasons becoming a political issue. There is disagreement on whether the sacrifice can be held on the first Pesah, if it is divided equally among the pure and the impure. We know that the majority rules and if the greater number of people are pure, everyone can attend the earlier ceremony. Rav says that if the pure and impure are divided evenly, “half and half is like the majority.” Rav Kahana takes the opposite point of view.

The voice of the Gemara offers a reasonable solution to the half and half dilemma. It says that the impure perform the ritual of the Paschal lamb for themselves in a state of purity, while the impure do the same in a state of impurity. Together they are considered the majority of the public and “the sacrifice of the majority of the public is not deferred to the second Pesah.” This seems like a simple and elegant solution. But Rav Kahana is not convinced and being a half-empty kind of guy, he does not back down from his perspective that “half and half is not like the majority.”  He revises the previous solution, by stating that those who are pure celebrate the first Pesah, while those who are impure put it off until the following month and observe the second Pesah.

The debates in the Talmud are never easy and in this case, every permutation of what half and half means to a community sacrificial ritual is analyzed. We are told that some have interpreted Rav Kahana’s solution to mean that the impure group gets no Pesah at all. We are told in one paragraph that the participation of women in the first Pesah is optional which contradicts what we read elsewhere, and in another paragraph that women’s participation in the first event is mandatory but optional in the second. There is debate on whether women should be counted in the numbers of pure and impure, but if they can help the case of the purity numbers, they are counted in. It is a little like undervaluing the role of women, until the politicians need their vote.

Living with the coronavirus for almost a year is not unlike living in a community that is in a metaphorical sense impure. But instead of following the rule that as an impure community we can partake in large social gatherings, including weddings and funerals and family holidays, we have been told to wait until a later time when we have reached herd immunity through the slowly but surely ramping-up vaccine programs. That later time is within reach, but it takes a degree of patience, empathy for each other and concern for the community to resist congregating.

I get it. It has been almost a year since I have visited with my out-of-state and overseas family. I am desperate to see them again. I am also desperate to get out and to go to the movies and the theater. The minute Broadway reopens I am there in an orchestra seat with a Playbill in my hand. The estimates are that the United States will reach a state of herd immunity by the end of this year and perhaps sooner if we can accelerate the vaccination program.

Each individual can tip the balance of how we get through what I hope is the final wave of this pandemic. We can all make a difference.


About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at https://brokentabletsfrompennycagan.me
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