9 Elul 5780

August 28, 2020

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19) has the largest number of commandments found in a weekly portion – 72 mitzvot (commandments). One of them reads, “When you build a new house, then you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you should not bring any blood upon your house, if any person falls from there.” (22:8) Homes in the Middle East are known for their flat roofs and people use them to entertain, very similar to our backyard decks.  Another similarity is anyone who owns a pool knows that the safety code requires a fence around it to ensure that no one is harmed.

Later, the rabbis of the Mishnah and in the Talmud create laws which go into detail about how tall and how strong the parapet must be. As we study these laws, we can only imagine the tragic story of someone leaning against the railing on the balcony and falling. We are now aware that it was a grave concern back then as several lives were lost from this horrible circumstance. In Biblical times food was dried and other chores were done on the roof of a home. The homeowner was responsible for everybody’s safety.

A similar law can be found in the book of Exodus. If a person digs a hole and someone’s animal falls in, or worse, if a person falls in, the person who created the hole is responsible for damages. Each of us is responsible for one another’s safety. No one can say that they have a right to build a house with no parapet or they have a right to dig a hole. Our rights end when they threaten the safety of our neighbors.

The message is clear for today as we struggle with the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. We are responsible for one another’s safety. And that raises the issue of wearing masks. We are fortunate that where we live in central New Jersey, most people (but certainly not everybody) have been good about wearing masks when congregating in public places. You cannot walk into any local supermarket or other store without a mask. In other parts of the country, most people are not wearing masks as we have seen on various media. What bothers me is people who claim that they have a right not to wear a mask, that requiring masks is a threat to their freedom. It saddens me that the question of wearing masks has become a political issue. Some things should be above politics.

Who decides whether wearing masks makes us all safer? Our tradition teaches that when it comes to medical questions, one goes to medical experts. Physicians who specialize in infectious diseases and public health officials should decide. I am well aware that these specialists may disagree. Some have questioned the necessity or effectiveness of masks. But most experts say that a disease spread by air droplets can be limited when people cover their mouths and noses. Until the experts say differently, wearing masks ought to be the norm.

What about the person who says I am one person? I want my freedom, and my one mask is not going to make a difference? There is a principle in ethical philosophy known as the tragedy of the commons. It challenges the principle first formulated by Thomas Hobbes that we human beings live under a social contract. The idea was first formulated by William Forster Lloyd, a British economist in 1833. The idea was further developed by American ecologist and philosopher Garrett Hardin in 1968. It raises the question, why should I cooperate with the social contract if I do not trust that others will?

The classic example is a pasture for grazing in the public domain. Everybody agrees that only a certain number of animals should be allowed to graze, or else the pasture will be overused and destroyed. One person decides to break the rules and go early in the morning to graze more animals. He or she decides that it will be to their advantage to graze more animals, and if they do not, somebody else will. One person may not make a difference, but if others learn that this person is breaking the rules, they decide to also break the rules. Soon the pasture is gone.

How do we live in a world where some people decide to ignore the rules? One person can be the carrier that makes numerous others sick. But as the tragedy of the commons proves, one person sets a bad example for another, and before long the pandemic numbers are going up again. If the experts say that masks are necessary to prevent the spread of a disease, then our tradition would teach the importance of wearing masks. Like the building of a parapet on the roof, or like covering up a hole that we dig, we are all responsible for the safety of others. (Special thanks to Rabbi Michael Gold of Temple Beth Torah Sha’aray Tzedek of Tamarac, FL for his words on ethics that are in this week’s Greetings)