Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appointed Rabbi Mark Miller to the newly formed Protect Michigan Commission, whose task is to help encourage those to take the critical step of getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
Isolation. Fear. Grief. It is an unfortunate truth that Jewish history gives us a deep understanding of the same difficulties we are all experiencing during this time of COVID. But our tradition was forged as a powerful response to the very hardships that can plague us.
Huddled together at the edge of the Promised Land, the Torah envisions a people who easily could have been resigned to their fate, or prayed for things to be different, or waited for someone to save them.
Instead, we — the inheritors of that moment — are reminded that the ultimate responsibility is ours: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse … choose life!” (Deuteronomy 30:19).
I am deeply honored that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appointed me to the newly formed Protect Michigan Commission. Along with a wide range of faith, business, medical and civic leaders, our task is to help encourage our friends and neighbors to take the critical step of getting a vaccine as soon as it is available to them. It will take each one of us to ensure that 70% of Michiganders over the age of 16 are vaccinated, a vital threshold that will allow all of us to emerge from this pandemic.
To some, it may seem obvious. But this Commission was necessary because we know that there is a significant percentage of Americans expressing “vaccine hesitancy.” There are lots of explanations for this — some reasonable (unsure if a vaccine developed so quickly will be safe or effective) and some not reasonable (the vaccine is going to change your DNA or implant a tracking chip inside you).
Many in our community have already been vaccinated, and even more are lined up to receive theirs. But for anyone who may be dubious, I would respectfully offer two guidelines.
First, Jewish tradition has long required us to maintain our health as a pathway to spiritual truth. The great sage Maimonides, himself a physician, taught more than 800 years ago that medical care is an obligation, not a choice, so that we might continue to fulfill our highest purpose on Earth. In fact, the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b) goes so far as to forbid crossing an unstable bridge — putting ourselves at unnecessary risk is a violation of Jewish law!
Just as important, to me, is the notion of communal responsibility. The entire Book of Deuteronomy could be read as a statement about how our own actions affect those around us. It is not that you or I will be blessed or cursed … it is that you and I and all of us together will be blessed or cursed, depending on the righteous actions of our entire community.
That is the challenge of today. If you are hesitating about getting the vaccine, doctors and scientists are clear that it is worse to go without it. And even if that isn’t enough, do it for the sake of your friends, your family, those in your synagogue or at work, or even those you don’t know. I pray that 2021 will be the year in which all of us stand united in choosing to be vaccinated … in choosing life!
Rabbi Mark Miller is senior rabbi of Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township.