The covid-19 pandemic is a physical one, but it sharply underscores a more disturbing pandemic that besets our world, including in the United States: the moral pandemic known as selfishness.
All of us are selfish at times about inconsequential things, but the selfishness meant here goes way beyond that because it literally can—and too often these days does—puts some lives at risk and takes others. Our Sages of Blessed Memory considered that selfishness to be among the seven severest sins imaginable. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Arachin 16a.)
Selfishness will be a topic tomorrow when many communities begin a six-week study of Pirkei Avot, the Chapters (Ethics) of the Fathers, beginning with Chapter One. That chapter has much to say about selfishness, most notably when it quotes the revered sage Hillel. He wants us to make his most famous saying our own: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am for myself [alone], what am I? And if not now, when?”
“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 him- or herself first because he or she has an obligation to help everyone else. That obligation, Hillel adds, exists immediately when help is needed. “If not now, when?” By the time we do act, if we act at all, it may be too late. Delaying or denying help is selfishness.
In various places in the Talmud this notion is expanded on, often in dramatic ways. For example, in BT Bava Metzia 33a, a mishnah bluntly states that in a situation in which someone’s parent or teacher lost something, and that person also lost something, “his own lost item takes precedence” despite the Torah’s commands to honor and respect one’s parents, and by extension, teachers. It follows that a person’s own loss also takes precedence over anyone else’s loss. As the gemara that follows this mishnah explains, however, this applies only if failure to recover the lost item leaves the person unable to help someone else.
The Babylonian sage Rav Yehudah, quoting his teacher Rav, begins the gemara’s discussion by noting that this rule is based on Deuteronomy 15:4. As he put it, “The Torah said, ‘Only so that there will be no needy among you,’ [meaning that] yours takes precedence over anyone else’s.” However, he quickly adds, “anyone who [routinely] conducts himself in this way will eventually become [needy him- or herself].”
As the commentator Rashi elaborated, looked at this way, a person’s selfishness is actually selflessness. We cannot help others if we ourselves lack the resources necessary to do so.
This may look like a stretch —
sages and commentators twisting the words of Torah. If the Torah says someone’s own takes precedence, warning against routinely acting this way actually invites people to violate Torah law.
It is not a stretch, however, because that quoted verse is meant to reference the much lengthier statement in which it is found (which we read on last Shabbat, the last day of Passover). It includes this: “If, however, there is a needy person among you…, you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient to meet the need…. Give readily and have no regrets when you do so….” There will be no needy, but only if those who are able to do so help those in need of help.
To repeat, then, selfishness is a sin. Not wearing N95 masks in enclosed venues, refusing to be fully vaccinated and boosted, and refusing to adhere to social distancing guidelines are acts of selfishness.
The Boston Globe columnist Renée Graham was on point when she recently wrote that “for many Americans, having to wear a mask occasionally has been the worst thing about the covid-19 pandemic.” That was what they consider to be the worst thing, not the more than seven million covid-19 deaths worldwide, or the long-term covid-19 effects many now must suffer, or the grief many still feel over the loss of loved ones.
Graham noted the “jubilant reactions posted on social media” that followed a federal judge’s ruling early last week striking down the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s mask mandate for airlines. “Buoyed by the selfishness that has prolonged this pandemic, they think only of themselves,” she wrote.
This selfishness begins at the very top. This is an election year, and government officials of both parties are making decisions based on what will win them the most votes, rather than what will save the most lives. Although the mask ruling is being appealed, for example, the government did not ask for it to be restored pending that appeal’s outcome. The judge’s ruling stands for now so as not to upset voters.
These are facts: The more transmissible and highly contagious omicron BA.2 subvariant is now responsible for nearly 90 percent of new covid-19 cases in the United States, with the sharpest increases noted so far here in the Northeast and in the Midwest. Two new BA.2 subvariants — BA.2.12 and BA.2.12.1 — are seen as the cause. Another variant, omicron XE, is feared to be coming our way.
This uptick has caused colleges in Washington, D.C., New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Texas—none of which worry about what voters think—to reimpose mask-wearing and other measures. As of this writing, one of them, Howard University, reinstated remote learning.
Philadelphia reinstated its mask mandate after new cases and hospitalizations there jumped dramatically during April’s first 18 days. It took only three days of numbers going down, though, for Philadelphia to cave into the political backlash and end the mandate.
Most political leaders, including the governors of New Jersey and New York, are similarly concerned about upsetting voters. Both states are seeing new cases soaring, yet they prefer to rely on individuals to act responsibly. On April 17, for example, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul vowed not to close New York City despite it currently being the nation’s leading covid-19 hotspot. “I’m not going to shut it down 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 are into Year Three of the pandemic, yet nearly one-quarter of all eligible Americans have not received even a single dose of a vaccine, while only two-thirds are fully vaccinated. Walk into any enclosed venue and there will be many people who are not wearing masks—even if a sign on the entrance says masks are required.
Maimonides, the Rambam, notes that the Torah ascribes bloodguilt to a person who “acts in an almost criminal fashion due to excessive carelessness or negligence.” (See his Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Murder and the Preservation of Life 6:4.) This certainly includes those who demonstrate a callous disregard for the health and safety of others by refusing to take all necessary covid-19 precautions.
The 18th century rabbi and philosopher Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto sharply criticized the “person who goes along in his world without giving thought to whether his actions are good or evil,” and who does not take “proper precautions to guard against potential danger” to himself and to others. (See his Path of the Upright 2:4.)
The standard excuse these days is that covid-19 is no longer the dread disease it was at the beginning. Tell that to the more than 400 people here who die from it every day, or to the approximately 40,000 people here who we know come down with covid-19 every day—a number that is much lower than the actual one because most in-home tests usually go unreported.
Getting a mild case, however, is deceptive. 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 with such senses as taste and smell.
New research has also shown that people 50 and older who contract covid-19 are 15 percent more likely than the rest of us to develop shingles, a painful skin rash that can have devastating effects.
Earlier studies have shown that covid-19 can lead to long-term damage to both heart and lungs.
There is nothing mild about a “mild case.”
Then there is this: A study published on 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 can’t be framed as just a matter of personal choice because it has implications for the safety of other people in the community,” said the study’s co-author, University of Toronto epidemiology professor Dr. David Fisman. He added, “Vaccinated individuals have a right not to have their efforts to protect themselves undermined.”
Jewish law, beginning with the Torah, is very clear on this: It is as much a sin to endanger one’s own life as it is to endanger the lives of others. Selfishness is involved here, as well, because a person who risks contracting covid-19 is not concerned about what impact his or her illness or death will have on family and friends.
Selfishness is a sin. In this case, it could lead to two even greater sins: causing harm to one’s self or to others, and-or to the taking of someone’s life.
Sadly, there is no vaccine to protect us from a moral pandemic.
Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.