Please Don’t Think The Vaccine Can Save Us

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Sadly, it needs to be said before I can get to my point. Of course, I intend to take the vaccine, with gratitude to the researchers and heath care workers who have worked diligently on producing it. I wish I could get it faster, to be able to put this time of trouble behind me, and us, faster. I write here because I think the way we think about it impacts when our Creator will fully release us from this pandemic.

I worry many of us think about the vaccines in a way that contradicts basic Jewish belief. I am not discussing practice, I stress; practically, I am among the many Orthodox Jews who fully believe we are obligated to act within the natural realm, according to the best understanding of nature in our time. I fully believe we are obligated to trust reputable doctors and follow their recommendations, which until now has meant adhering to the restrictions on socializing (as I have and continue to do) and the requirements of mask-wearing, to do our best to stem the coronavirus using our best human understanding of how it spreads and what we can do to prevent further suffering or death, Gd forbid, or reduce it to its bare minimum. 

With the advent of vaccines, people tend to say as more and more of us take the vaccine—as we all should—we will eventually reach herd immunity, where enough people in society cannot get the virus so it will no longer be a danger. The problem is that we who believe in Gd, Who continues to be involved with creation, cannot subscribe to that phrasing. First, even scientists agree there is much we still do not know about these vaccines. They accurately say their research gives us good reason to expect the vaccine will have this effect, leading to this outcome (one we all want, cessation of pandemic, permission to return to the good parts of our previous lives). 

Should, halilah, the Creator decide we did not yet merit a return to normalcy, the vaccine would be irrelevant. This could happen in ways people would still see as natural: the coronavirus could mutate, for example, as scientists in the UK say it recently has to become more infectious. Thank Gd, that mutation does not appear to mean it can overcome the vaccine or that it is deadlier, but it could mutate again. Or, we might discover large classes of people react to the vaccine differently than the volunteers for the trials. Or…well, lo nitkenu alilot, Gd has many, many ways to bring unexpected results. 

As others have noted, a tiny virus has brought the world to its feet in the year 5780, or 2020, where before this virus, many, many people were completely certain humanity pretty much had life in control. It unfortunately reminds me of Gittin 56b, where Titus thinks he can compete with Gd; when the sea threatens to drown his ship, he claims Gd only has power on the sea, only to have his life then upended and ruined by a gnat. 

We need to remember the gift Gd gave us of real contributions to the world can blind us to how completely powerless we are any time the Master of the Universe decides otherwise. The usual regularity of nature can fool us into thinking those are “laws,” instead of a limited invitation to participate in building the world. At any point, as has happened in the past, our Father in Heaven could decide it was time to run things His (pardon the gendered pronoun) way, and it would turn out all the laws of nature we thought we knew had loopholes we never saw coming.

A thought experiment: in a world of almost eight billion, certainly fewer than half believe in the Gd of the Bible, and Jews of course think there are serious flaws in how Muslims and Christians conceive of Gd. What would happen should the Holy One insist on the world coming to recognize and appreciate the truth of Gd’s Kingdom, Glory, etc. in the fully Jewish way?

Sanhedrin 113a tells of Eliyahu deciding the time had come to force the Jews of the Northern Kingdom to admit it, and brought a long drought he was willing to have continue until they submitted. The Holy One had compassion and decided to end it. What happens if —halilah, Gd forbid—Gd decides the time has come, the coronavirus will not go away until all, or even most, of the world accepts basic truths about Gd, regardless of cost? 

I fear that situation, because I think billions of people would go to their deaths before admitting simple truths. Nor do I expect our Father in Heaven has indeed decided that; I expect Gd sent this virus as a wakeup call and, like other diseases, leaves the call out there only until human beings find their way out, as was true of the Spanish flu, polio, AIDS, and other pandemics. I am writing to remind us the sooner and the more of us who remember Nature doesn’t run the world, who realize Gd is our only true salvation, the faster and better our salvation will be.

Medicine is one place where we can get fooled into losing sight of basic truths. After his mother passed away, Tzitz Eliezer wrote a short book called Ramat Rahel, included in volume five of his responsa, on the topic of vising those who are ill; the first chapter took Arukh HaShulhan to task (remarkable on its own: he was so certain, he took Arukh HaShulhan to task! Arukh HaShulhan!) for having written (Yoreh De’ah 335;1) someone who is ill should not rely solely on doctors. 

Tzitz Eliezer was the halakhic authority for Sha’arei Tzedek hospital for many years. He was in no way a science denier or opposed to the endeavor of intervening with illness. Nonetheless, he demurred from Arukh HaShulkhan’s locution. In his view, a person who is ill must consult doctors, follow their recommendations, thank them when the illness goes away, but only because Gd, the only Source of healing, has decreed that conduct. Relying on doctors as if they have any independent power to heal illness is a serious error, in his view. 

[In all fairness to Arukh HaShulhan, I believe he would have agreed. I believe he was trying to wean readers who had fallen so fully into the habit of believing doctors, they were sure doctors are absolute sources of healing.] 

In a different context, R. Moshe Feinstein, Iggerot Moshe Orah Hayyim 5;33, inferred a similar point from Sotah 47a-b, where a baraita in the name of R. Pinhas b. Ya’ir lays out three scenarios of despair for the Jewish people, leading them to realize they could rely only on their Father in Heaven. R. Feinstein thought the three crises were a lack of respect for Torah scholars, a loss of knowledge of Torah itself at a sophisticated level, and physical distress. 

The first two should have led people to turn to Gd, to know only Gd saves. For people who do not notice those, Gd brings physical troubles, catching everyone’s attention, with no road to deliverance, until the Jewish people turn to Gd. 

Some take this too far, turn reliance on Gd into permission to refrain from doing our part (such as taking a vaccine, as we all must, and other ways of caring for our physical selves). We have no reason to believe we merit the kinds of Divine Providence Ramban speaks about in his Torah commentary, where some great people can rely solely on Gd. Almost all of us operate in the in-between, where we must do our best even as we know it all comes from Gd. 

So, practical recommendation: speak carefully. The vaccine and/or herd immunity will not deliver us from coronavirus, even as we are obligated to take the vaccine and work towards herd immunity. Those are our ways of providing a natural vehicle for Gd’s salvation to express itself. If we are fortunate, we can help the process, do more to merit Gd’s healing, and Gd will sooner allow us to exit this time of trouble. We hope and pray that is true, can then credit researchers and healthcare workers for their hard work in serving as the vehicle of relief.

It’s as Mordekhai said to Ester at the turning point of the Megillah: salvation will come to the Jews one way or other, the question is whether she will be wise enough to make herself the means. She chose well, and is a central figure of our holiday of Purim. Similarly, in the first paragraph of his Laws of Hanukkah, Rambam writes the time of trouble continued until the God of our forefathers had compassion on the Jews, provided salvation, and rescued them from the Greeks. Only then does he mention the Hashmona’im, Matityahu and his family. 

They were how the salvation came, and deserve credit for being so, but it came from Gd, as it always does. I hope we all make similarly good choices in how we think, speak, and act about this terrible time and the way out of it, joining in becoming the avenues through which Gd helps us all back to better times. 

About Gidon Rothstein

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