The first vaccine I received was in early January at a drive-thru vaccination center at Banner Del E Webb Medical Center in Sun City. Because I am a hospice rabbi for Madrona Hospice & Palliative Care, I was lucky to receive it early.
My boss worked hard to include hospice chaplains and social workers to be first in line to receive the new vaccine with all other health care workers. Chaplains are considered nonessential medical workers and are denied entry to most group homes and nursing homes for fear of spreading the virus.
This past year has been frustrating for rabbis and chaplains who specialize in the personal connection between patient and family and their clergy. The vaccine I received gives us a chance to end the isolation patients experience. It gives us an opportunity to be in person with those who need that connection before they go to the next world.
I have been a rabbi for almost 20 years and I can’t count how many times I have sat with a family or an individual holding their hand as they struggle with the fear of life's end. Sitting at bedside with even an unconscious loved one is an essential part of the mourning process. Many times when a congregant called me to give the last rights, the moment I arrived would often be the moment the patient would take their last breath — almost waiting for a rabbi’s permission to enter the world to come.
Not to physically touch the person and say goodbye is a painful part of this tragic year. The vaccine is now a signal that we can start to reconnect to one another.
Quarantine has been hard, but part of our Jewish values is to protect the community. This is considered a great mitzvah. When Miriam was afflicted with tzora’as (leprosy) after speaking lashon harah (evil gossip), she was told by God to separate herself from the community outside its camp for three days to allow herself to heal but also to protect the community around her.
The preservation of physical well-being is looked upon in Judaism as a religious command. Concerning our mitzvot we are told: “And live through them, but not die through them” (Yoma 85b, based on Lev. xviii. 5). It was the principle applied to all the laws of the Bible, from which the rabbis deduced that in case of danger to life, all laws except those against idolatry, adultery and murder might be violated.
The neglect of one’s health was regarded as a sin; and the Nazarite who vowed to abstain from wine and was in isolation was considered a sinner, as well as he who fasted or underwent other penance without reason. The idea is that we are not allowed to deprive ourselves and be in isolation without a very specific reason, and the highest of those reasons is the safety of our community.
Zoom has been a help during this time as our community tries to connect over screens. But Zoom is no replacement for the physical connection we crave during a time of crisis. I have done some amazing things on Zoom, from last rights to Taharah — the cleansing ceremony before burial, but the vaccine offers something special: a chance to return to the physical connections people need as they face the end-of-life crisis.
The second shot I received meant more than just hope for me to return to the normalcy of my job. It was a chance for the community to have a collective hug that we so badly need. I truly believe this vaccine is a religious duty for all in our community because, just as we need time to separate for physical healing, we also need time to return to the physical connections that help heal
We all need to take this vaccine seriously, and all in our community are strongly encouraged to get it. The Talmud states that all of Israel are responsible for each other (Shevuot 39a). This is the basis of the notion of communal responsibility in Jewish law. If one Jew sees another Jew in crisis, he or she has an obligation to step in and help.
Even more so, it implies an obligation on all Jews to ensure that other Jews have their basic needs for food, clothing and shelter met. That also includes social connection.
This is the core of our faith and this vaccine is more than a personal act of health care. It's a communal responsibility for religious healing and I urge all to take the shot — not just for yourself but for all in our community. JN
Rabbi Jeffrey Lipschultz is the staff rabbi for Madrona Hospice & Palliative Care.