The “moral pandemic” is even worse

The covid-19 pandemic is physical, but it strongly highlights a more disturbing pandemic besetting our world, including the United States: the moral pandemic known as selfishness.

We are all sometimes selfish about unimportant things, but the selfishness in question here goes far beyond that, as it can literally – and too often these days does – put certain lives in danger and in danger. take others. Our Sages of Holy Memory considered selfishness to be among the seven most serious sins imaginable. (See the Babylonian Talmud treatise Arachin 16a.)

Selfishness will be a topic tomorrow when many communities begin a six-week study of Pirkei Avot, the (Ethics) Chapters of the Fathers, beginning with Chapter One. This chapter has much to say about selfishness, especially when he quotes the revered sage Hillel. He wants us to make his most famous adage our own: “If I am not for me, who is for me? But if I’m for me [alone], what am I? And if not now, when?”

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“If I am not for myself” may sound like something a selfish person would say, but then Hillel immediately adds, “But if I am for myself [alone]what am I?” In other words, a person must put themselves forward because they have an obligation to help others. This obligation, adds Hillel, exists immediately when help is needed. “If not now when?” By the time we act, if we act at all, it may be too late. Delaying or refusing help is selfishness.

In various places in the Talmud this notion is developed, often dramatically. For example, in BT Bava Metzia 33a, a mishnah bluntly states that in a situation in which someone’s parent or teacher has lost something, and that person has also lost something, “his own lost object takes precedence” despite Torah commandments to honor and respect one’s parents and, by extension, teachers. It follows that one person’s own loss also takes precedence over someone else’s loss. However, as the gemara that follows this mishnah explains, this only applies if the failure to recover the lost item prevents the person from helping someone else.

The Babylonian sage Rav Yehudah, quoting his teacher Rav, begins the discussion of gemara by noting that this rule is based on Deuteronomy 15:4. ‘there are no needy among you,’ [meaning that] yours takes precedence over anyone else’s. However, he quickly adds, “anyone who [routinely] behaves in this way will eventually become [needy him- or herself].

As the commentator Rashi explained, seen this way, a person’s selfishness is in fact altruism. We cannot help others if we ourselves do not have the resources to do so.

It may feel like a stretch —

sages and commentators twisting the words of the Torah. If the Torah says that what belongs to someone takes precedence, the warning against routine behavior in this way actually invites people to violate Torah law.

It’s no exaggeration, however, because this quoted verse is meant to refer to the much longer statement in which it is found (which we read on the last Shabbat, the last day of Passover). He understands this: “If, however, there is a needy person among you…you should open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient to meet the need…. Give willingly and have no regrets when you do…” There will be no needy, but only if those who are able help those in need.

To repeat, then, selfishness is a sin. Not wearing N95 masks in enclosed settings, refusing to be fully vaccinated and boosted, and refusing to follow social distancing guidelines are acts of selfishness.

Boston Globe columnist Renée Graham was on point when she recently wrote that “for many Americans, having to wear a mask once in a while has been the worst thing about the covid-19 pandemic.” It was what they considered the worst thing, not the more than seven million deaths from Covid-19 worldwide, nor the long-term effects of Covid-19 that many now have to endure, nor the grief that many still feel because of the loss of loved ones.

Graham noted the “jubilant reactions posted on social media” that followed a federal judge’s decision early last week overturning the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s mask mandate for airlines. “Carried away by the selfishness that has prolonged this pandemic, they only think of themselves,” she wrote.

This selfishness begins at the very top. It’s an election year, and government officials from both parties are making decisions based on what will get them the most votes, rather than what will save the most lives. Although the decision on the mask is under appeal, for example, the government has not asked that it be reinstated pending the outcome of that appeal. The judge’s decision stands for now so as not to upset voters.

These are facts: the more transmissible and highly contagious omicron subvariant BA.2 is now responsible for nearly 90% of new covid-19 cases in the United States, with the largest increases noted up to present here in the Northeast and in the Midwest. Two new BA.2 sub-variants – BA.2.12 and BA.2.12.1 – are considered the cause. Another variant, omicron XE, is to be feared.

This rise has prompted colleges in Washington, DC, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Texas – none of which care about what voters think – to reimpose mask-wearing and other measures. As of this writing, one of them, Howard University, has reinstated distance learning.

Philadelphia reinstated its mask mandate after new cases and hospitalizations there jumped dramatically in the first 18 days of April. However, it only took three days of declining numbers for Philadelphia to cave to the political backlash and end the term.

Most political leaders, including the governors of New Jersey and New York, are also concerned about upsetting voters. Both states are seeing new cases soar, but they prefer to rely on individuals to act responsibly. On April 17, for example, New York Governor Kathy Hochul vowed not to shut down New York City when it is currently the nation’s top covid-19 hotspot. “I’m not going to close it again, you can count on that,” Hochul said. “I’m going to protect the health of New Yorkers, but I’m also protecting the economy.”

Given the degree of selfishness here, reliance on personal responsibility is a huge risk. We’re in the third year of the pandemic, but nearly a quarter of all eligible Americans haven’t even received a single dose of the vaccine, while only two-thirds are fully vaccinated. Enter any closed venue and there will be plenty of people who won’t wear a mask, even if a sign at the entrance says masks are required.

Maimonides, the Rambam, notes that the Torah assigns blood guilt to a person who “acts almost criminally due to negligence or gross negligence”. (See his Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Murder and Preservation of Life 6:4.) This certainly includes those who show callous disregard for the health and safety of others by refusing to take all covid precautions. -19 needed.

The 18th century rabbi and philosopher, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, sharply criticized the “person who walks through his world without considering whether his actions are right or wrong”, and who does not take “proper precautions to guard against a potential danger” to himself. and to others. (See his Straight Path 2:4.)

The standard excuse these days is that covid-19 isn’t the dreaded disease it was when it started. Tell that to the more than 400 people here who die from it every day, or the roughly 40,000 people here who we know catch covid-19 every day – a number far lower than the actual number because most people at home tests are usually not reported.

Getting a mild case, however, is misleading. For example, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature, even a mild case can significantly affect a person’s brain, shrinking its size and damaging tissues associated with memory and senses such as taste and smell. smell.

New research has also shown that people aged 50 and over who contract covid-19 are 15% more likely than the rest of us to develop shingles, a painful rash that can have devastating effects.

Previous studies have shown that covid-19 can lead to long-term damage to the heart and lungs.

There is nothing sweet about a “mild case”.

And then there’s this: A study published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that the unvaccinated among us threaten the safety of all who are vaccinated. “The decision to get vaccinated cannot be seen as a simple matter of personal choice, as it has implications for the safety of others in the community,” said study co-author Professor D epidemiology from the University of Toronto, Dr. David Fisman. He added: “Vaccinated people have the right not to have their efforts to protect themselves undermined.”

Jewish law, starting with the Torah, is very clear about this: it is as much a sin to endanger one’s own life as it is to endanger the lives of others. Selfishness is also involved here, as a person who is at risk of contracting covid-19 does not care about the impact their illness or death will have on their family and friends.

Selfishness is a sin. In this case, it could lead to two even greater sins: harming yourself or others, and/or taking someone’s life.

Unfortunately, there is no vaccine to protect us from a moral pandemic.

Shammai Engelmayer is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 commentary awards. Its website is

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