Rav Yisrael, Epidemics, and Priorities

On the topic of people insisting on maintaining risky behaviors during the corona pandemic…

Too many of us are placing minyan, attending weddings or funerals, and other such mitzvos ahead of safety. Despite the fact that we all know, that risk to life comes first. “וחי בהם – ולא שימות בהם”. (“‘And you shall keep My statues and My law] and you shall live by them’ [Vayiqra 18:5] — and not die by them.” –Sanhedrin 74a)

And many people responding to this reality invoke the famous story about Rabbi Yisrael Salanter encouraging eating on Yom Kippur during a cholera epidemic. That R Yisreal stood up at the bimah in Vilna and declaring it permissible not to fast today, invoking the above about “וחי בהם”.And then, to set an example, he made Qiddush and ate.

(At least, that is the more popular version, testified to by students of R Yisrael and found in most academic versions. In another version, he left food available in the shul, but didn’t go so far as to eat himself.)

But Rav Yisrael Salanter didn’t apply this principle about safety to overriding every mitzvah.

Because Rabbi Dov Katz records that during the same epidemic, Rabbi Yisrael and the members of his kollel taking care of those who got the disease. Rav Yisrael even rented a building to set up a 1,500 bed hospital, and raised other money in addition to tend to their patients.

Yes, it’s true that “וחי בהם” places life ahead of mitzvos. It is also true that we follow Rabbi Akiva, that if lost in a desert with someone else, and you has enough water that you somehow (miraculously) knew was only enough to save one of you, that “חייך קודמים” (your own life comes first – BM 62a).But when it comes to the mitzvah of saving others’ lives, risking your life is not only permitted, it is meritorious. (Although admittedly not obligatory.)

And in reality, that is what we are speaking about here too. Most of the people attending unsafe minyanim and otherwise ignoring medical guidelines are only adding a minimal risk to their own lives. It’s the lives of those more medically fragile who are facing the real risk when their community becomes the local hotspot.

And so, the message Rav Yisrael left us is even more poignant. While our own lives are a higher priority than eating on Yom Kippur, we are allowed and encourage (although again, not obligated) to make others’ lives even a higher priority yet!

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