Masking, Nitzavim, and Interbeing

Masking, Nitzavim, and Interbeing

I have heard a lot of talk about civil rights from those opposed to masks: parents “right” to choose whether to send their child in with a mask, the “right” to make my own health decisions, my “right” to send my child in with a mask.

Civil rights are one thing when they are completely private: what I do alone in the privacy of my home is my own business. But when they impact others, we need to balance each persons “rights.” Why don’t I have a right to drive any speed on the highway? Because I could crash and kill somebody. Why don’t I have the right to send a child into school unvaccinated from Polio? Because they could get sick and then transmit it to other children. The rights we claim are always balanced by safety considerations of the people around us.

Many apparently private choices we make can impact others. The “choice” to smoke can result in lung cancer and a healthcare cost to society. The “choice” not to mask can mean that I infect someone else who is masked but close to me. Even if that doesn’t happen, if I get sick I might take up an ICU bed, which could create a situation where people are turned away from care. If I get ill and infects others, my “choice” is not so private in its impact.

Our parsha describes all of the Jewish community as standing together during Moses’ address:

You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel, your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp both your woodcutters and your water drawers, that you may enter the covenant of the Lord, your God, and His oath, which the Lord, your God, is making with you this day… But not only with you am I making this covenant and this oath, but with those standing here with us today before the Lord, our God, and [also] with those who are not here with us, this day.” (Dt 29:9-14)

The Torah makes it clear that we enter the covenant as a community, not as individuals. There is a halachic principle, kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, (“all of Israel are guarantors for each other”) which means that I am ethically and spiritually liable for the behavior of my fellow Jews. What another Jew does, even if it seems completely private, impacts me spiritually. We are interwoven in a spiritual fabric, since our souls are ultimately all connected.

The great Buddhist thinker and leader Thich Nat Hanh had a phrase called “interbeing,” meaning that we are not truly separate; all of us are physically and spiritually connected. The idea that I can ever act a certain way even in private with no impact on anybody else is an illusion, since we are connected in so many ways. We cannot just think about our isolated “choices;” we must think about how all our actions and decisions impact others.

As Americans, we are attached to our individual liberties, and like to think we can each make our choices independently of other peoples’ opinions. This pandemic challenges all of us to view ourselves as parts of a larger web of society, and sacrifice our individual preferences to the task of bringing healing to the interlinked web of our community.