Dr. Sara Labaton
I haven’t seen past the end of my block in a month. Like most of you, we are #stayinghome to #savelives. But is that really the limit of our obligation in this moment of international crisis and suffering? The hashtags make it sound like all we have to do is stay home to allow medical professionals to do their jobs and we will save lives. Everyone has their role in this pandemic and ours is to hunker down, homeschool if we have children, and do our best to work remotely. While that rhetoric might help convince people not to do what is hazardous to the public health of our society, I question whether it is a sufficient articulation of our individual responsibilities in this moment. What exactly is the extent of our moral and religious obligation in the face of a global pandemic? Do we sufficiently discharge our duties by living out the fullness of our lives confined at home, or is that the bare minimum, scratching the surface of our human responsibility?
Our usual sources of wisdom are proving tricky to follow. We are living in a state of dissonance, where our routines and rituals have come to an indefinite halt, where various forms of authority and knowledge have eroded, and where the formula for decision making is murky and variable. There are no simple answers and drawing on historical precedents and paradigms is shaky at best.
Through the radical uncertainty unleashed by COVID-19, I keep coming back to a particular halakhic framework that is helping me navigate what feels like a grotesque maze.
In Mishnah Berachot 2:4, we read about a groom on his wedding night who is about to perform the mitzvah of consummating his marriage and is, therefore, preoccupied and incapable of reciting the evening Shema. In this situation, the Mishnah grants the groom an exemption from the mitzvah of Shema. The Gemara locates the source of the exemption in the biblical command (Deuteronomy 6:7) to recite these words of the Shema בשבתך בביתך ובלכתך בדרך “while you are sitting at your home and going on your way.” The term “way,” specifically “your way,” evokes a sense of freedom, of permissiveness, of movement. Shema is only obligatory under conditions where one is not occupied — physically or emotionally — with another mitzvah. The Mishnah and Gemara furnish the general principle that engagement or occupation with mitzvoth potentially provides an exemption for performing other mitzvoth: העוסק במצוה פטור מן המצוה. This principle is intriguing enough and raises important questions around its limits (when does it not apply?), motives (why not recite the Shema imperfectly?), the hierarchies it presupposes, and the nature of exemptions.
Things get even more provocative when we read in Mishnah Sukkah that messengers or emissaries for mitzvoth (among others) are exempt from the obligations of sukkah. Rashi and Tosafot, the great northern French medieval commentators, disagree as to the scope of the exemption and what it means to be a messenger. Rashi explains that someone may be on their way (הולכי בדרך מצוה) to learn Torah, greet their teacher, or redeem captives. Critically, Rashi writes that their exemption from Sukkah obtains even when they are resting (אפילו בשעת חנייתן) on the road! Rav Soloveitchik extrapolates from this that the process leading up to the mitzvah is part of the mitzvah. Engagement with the process is enough to trigger an exemption from another mitzvah.
Tosafot, alternatively, argues (against Rashi) that if one is able to do two mitzvoth, they should. An exemption from a mitzvah only applies when one is actively involved in another mitzvah (אלא ודאי לא מפטר אלא בשעה שהוא עוסק בה). Tosafot focuses strictly on the actual mitzvah and its performance.
Both of these approaches to observance and exemption strike a strong cord with me during this time period. Moreover, in contrast to the general halakhic tendency of sticking with one set of customs or psak (halakhic rulings), here it feels wise to turn to and deploy both.
There are days where all I can manage is to get through the bare minimum of parenting and working. I know that by #stayinghome, I am contributing. I am engaged in a process of mitzvah even if there is nothing active I am involved with that helps or furthers the fight against COVID-19. At the same time, I cannot treat staying home as a blanket exemption. Whatever resources I have — whether time, energy or money — must be marshalled to supporting essential personnel, to checking in with people who are alone, to “visiting” the sick, to raising and contributing money, to political advocacy, to considering the needs of people outside the immediate confines of our communities.
We are living in complicated times which require deliberations and sacrifices we never could have anticipated making. Complicated times mean that even well-thought out and strategic decisions do not translate into moral clarity and certainty. The temptation to hole up is great and there are moments when it is certainly warranted as it actually does provide societal benefit and, in this sense, constitutes Rashi’s process leading up to a mitzvah. But when we can do two mitzvoth simultaneously, when our emotional and physical selves allow for staying home and joining the fight, we turn to Tosafot and seize both.
Sara Labaton received her PhD in Jewish Studies from NYU and has taught in a wide range of Jewish settings.