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"Living by Pikuah Nefesh: The Jewish Imperative To Protect Life and Health"

01/06/2022 01:13:17 PM


Rabbi Steve Folberg


As you've probably learned by now, given that Austin has now entered Stage 5 COVID-19 protocols, our CBI clergy team, staff and volunteer leadership has made the decision to suspend in-person worship, Religious School and other activities until such time as public health officials declare the current surge has abated into a “safe stage.” We will continue to provide as much Jewish content and community as we can through our established, online channels. That said, because the rollback of Temple gatherings is no doubt disappointing and frustrating to all of us, I wanted to frame this decision in a Jewish ethical context.

A famous story is told about Rabbi Israel Salanter, the Polish sage who founded the influential Mussar, ethical renewal movement in Judaism. It is said that one Yom Kippur, when a cholera epidemic was ravaging his community, he opened a bottle of wine on the bimah, on this holiest of fast days, and recited kiddush and the blessing over bread, urging his followers to protect themselves from the disease by going home, eating and drinking as well. 

In one version of the story, a community member berated him, saying, "I cannot believe that you are so lax when it comes to the laws of fasting on Yom Kippur!" To this, the Rabbi replied, "It's not that I am sloppy about fasting on Yom Kippur! It's that I am extremely strict about the laws of Pikuah Nefesh!" What was the Rabbi referring to?

In the book of Leviticus (chapter 18, verse 5) the Torah commands, "You shall keep My laws and rules, and live by them." Understanding the end of the verse to mean, "live, and not die by them," the Talmud (Yoma 85b) famously derives the principle of Pikuah Nefesh, the supremacy of saving and protecting human life and health. An important Jewish scholar known as The Chatam Sofer comments, “Pikuach Nefesh supersedes everything else, and nothing can stand in its way.

These Jewish teachings bring us back to our own, current situation.

The omicron variant of COVID-19 seems, thankfully, to have somewhat milder health impacts than earlier strains for those who have been vaccinated and received a booster shot. That said, omicron also seems to be orders of magnitude more contagious. I have lost count of the number of friends, colleagues and CBI members who have tested positive in recent days. This thing is a big deal and not to be taken lightly.

I, myself, had a scare last week and waited several hours at an urgent care facility to get a PCR test. I was fortunate to test negative, but I had been feeling achy and fatigued and was, to be honest, pretty frightened by the time I finally got my test. The thought that I might be sick, and might have inadvertently passed the virus along to others, was more than a little alarming.

Let me hasten to say that all of us on the Temple staff and volunteer leadership are holding all of our members and their friends and loved ones who are ill in our hearts and in our prayers. 

I trust that you will continue to be as patient and understanding as you have been throughout this pandemic with the current decision to suspend in person gatherings for the time being. We have made this decision in that same spirit as the rabbi who ate on the bimah on Yom Kippur order to embody Pikuah Nefesh, loving each other, and ourselves, by protecting each other. Needless to say, we look forward to the day when the current surge abates and Austin is in a lower stage, making it safe to gather as a community once again.

Please do everything you need to do to stay safe. We love you, we truly do, and we want you to be healthy and well!

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Steve Folberg

Mon, February 6 2023 15 Sh'vat 5783