We are in the days of transition between the Yamim Nora’im and Z’man Simchaseinu, the joyous holy days of Sukkos, Sh’mini Atzeres, and Simchas Torah. The words in our davening during the Yamim Nora’im, which just ended, “who will live, who will die,” resonated more this year than in the past. 5780 was a year in which there was death by the sword (the fatal stabbing of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg in Monsey during Chanukah and other anti-Semitic attacks), asphyxiation (the murder of George Floyd, which brought longstanding racial tensions to the surface and led to rioting), fire (wildfires on the West Coast), water (hurricanes), and (most notably) plague (the COVID-19 pandemic).
I woke up this past Wednesday morning to a report on the radio on the alarming rate of increase in new coronavirus cases in four neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. I was upset but, sad to say, not surprised to learn that the areas in which the virus is spreading most dramatically include Borough Park, Midwood, Williamsburg, Far Rockaway, and our own neighborhoods in Central Queens.
Many people in our community are not following the recommendations of the public health authorities. I had to walk out of a funeral for a relative in Borough Park because scores of people were crowded together, and 90 percent of them were not wearing masks. I have seen people who were wearing masks ridiculed.
I have heard many rationales for not wearing masks. They are uncomfortable and inconvenient. Mask-wearing regulations are an infringement on our personal freedoms. COVID-19 is a hoax. Hashem is the one who decides who will or will not get sick, and wearing a mask is useless and shows a lack of emunah.
Later on Wednesday, I listened to a shiur by Rav Hershel Schachter shlita. He said that during the 1831 cholera epidemic, Rabbi Akiva Eiger zt”l issued a number of takanos for the Yamim Nora’im, which included limiting the number of people in shul, requiring that every other seat in the shul be empty, and shortening the davening by eliminating piyutim. When the pandemic ended, the King of Prussia honored Rabbi Akiva Eiger, because the death rate among the Jews was lower than the death rate in the rest of Europe.
Rav Schachter went on to say, “I don’t know why people in our generation think they are bigger tzadikim than Rabbi Akiva Eiger. They’re not worried about the social distancing, they’re not worried about wearing the masks, they’re not worried about shortening the davening. Rabbi Akiva Eiger was a holy tzadik and he did all of those things.”
Rabbi Akiva Eiger certainly did not lack emunah. He knew very well who the real Rofei Cholim is. But he took the words “V’nishmartem m’od l’nafshoseichem” seriously.
Certainly, we believe that t’shuvah, t’filah, and tz’dakah are the key to avoiding the evil decree. But we also understand that we are required to act affirmatively to protect our own health and the health of others. That is why we go to doctors, take medication, and undergo surgery when necessary. We even take pride in our own volunteer ambulance corps to make sure that we can be taken care of as quickly as possible in an emergency.
While there is still some doubt about how far the coronavirus microbes can travel or how long they last in the air, there is no question that the virus is transmitted from person to person through the air. When a person who has the virus microbes, even when he or she does not have symptoms, releases them into the area through sneezing, coughing, talking, or singing, another person can inhale them and, chas v’shalom, become sick or even die. Our masks protect us from inhaling microbes and, more significantly, protect others by preventing our microbes from being released into the air.
Infectious disease experts are nearly unanimous in saying that the most effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to wear masks and practice social distancing.
No one wants to be responsible for causing illness or even death to someone else. But that is exactly what we risk doing when we refuse to wear masks and practice social distancing.
Preserving human life is so important that we are commanded to violate Shabbos when there is even the possibility of pikuach nefesh. Certainly, we are required to endure whatever inconvenience and discomfort wearing a mask or practicing social distancing involves, when that is what is necessary to protect ourselves and others during the worst pandemic in over 100 years.
If we will not heed the advice of the public officials, let us at least follow the guidance of Rabbi Akiva Eiger by wearing masks and practicing social distancing.
The Mishnah (Sukkah 5:1) states that “one who has not seen the Simchas Beis HaShoeivah, the celebration of the pouring of the water over the mizbei’ach on Sukkos, has never witnessed a celebration in his life.”
In the merit of our t’shuvah, t’filah, and tz’dakah, and our commitment to protecting ourselves and others, may the true Rofei Cholim bring about the greatest simchah of all: We should all be zocheh to participate in the mitzvah of aliyah la’regel for Sukkos and to witness the nisuch ha’mayim in the newly rebuilt Beis HaMikdash.