A great miracle happened here. Mask mandates have been removed from most areas of life, and everyone is dancing in the streets. Our hard fought freedoms – severely curtailed by the most menacing piece of cloth in human history – have been restored. The pandemic is over! Huzzah!!
OK, sorry, I was being sarcastic. It’s sooooo not over. Over 1000 Americans are still dying every day. Case counts are somewhat low but appear to be leveling off and even increasing in some areas. Yes, we are moving into a new phase: most Americans are vaccinated, natural immunity is helping, effective treatments for COVID are available and becoming more easy to obtain and administer. The Omicron B.A.1 variant and its drunk uncle, B.A.2, are far more transmissible than Delta but appear to be far less lethal. The pandemic is slowly becoming endemic. On the other hand, herd immunity is now seen as unobtainable, the global vaccination rate is slow enough to produces countless more variants, and we are seeing quite a few reinfections. For this reason, the CDC “strongly recommends” wearing masks indoors and in large crowds, but no longer calls for mandates.
Lots of people are still wearing masks, at least here in my neck of L.A. Most people at my congregation and at Trader Joe’s are wearing them. Yet, I am also witnessing many instances of people not wearing masks at social gatherings and other events, and lots of maskless people on Capitol Hill. It is difficult to know how to proceed in the face of enormous social pressure to declare the pandemic over.
Just the other day, I watched the livestream of an indoor event. On the dais were two people known to me and each other. One is bravely battling cancer and was wearing a mask. The one sitting right next to them for some time was not wearing one. Did the latter know of the former’s diagnosis? Should they have erred on the side of caution? Should we?
How do we know that the person next to us indoors, or standing in line in front of us, is not in a high risk health category in which their immunity wanes quickly after vaccination? If we find ourselves in this category, it’s easy to know what to do: we mask up, maybe even an N-95 or KN-95 to compensate for maskless others. If we are not in this category, we have to factor into our decision-making the probability we will be near someone whom we can infect. One of the insidious things about these new variants is that most people who contract COVID may never find out they have it. For some time it may remain necessary to behave on the assumption we have COVID and don’t know it, and mask up while indoors or while in somebody else’s household.
Too many of us confuse “can” with “should.” Certainly we can remove our masks in most places, but that doesn’t mean we should. This is the essence of “l’fanim mishurat hadin,” an important rabbinic principle of going “above and beyond” the requirements of law. So important is this principle that some of our Sages attribute the destruction of the 2nd Holy Temple to our failure to do this. If one follows only the letter of the law and not its spirit, then one is not an ethically self-actualized individual. And in a pandemic, the failure to go above and beyond remains potentially deadly.
I do admit that I am getting a bit more relaxed. Some of us, including myself, did not wear masks while rehearsing our Purim spiel , which was fine since there were fewer than ten of us and we were mostly spread out. I didn’t wear a mask while with one or two young-ish adults at a time in their office. I didn’t wear a mask last Shabbat while leading most of services.
But I did wear one during the Torah service, when I came within 6 feet of several individuals certainly or likely to be in a high risk health category. I still wear one to Trader Joes and in the main office of my synagogue as well as in person meetings. At my father’s significant birthday celebration, we are permitting only vaccinated individuals who are required to wear masks except the moments they are eating or drinking. And I still check that NY Times “Tracking the Coronavirus” page on a daily basis.
Pirkei Avot lists 48 virtues by which true spiritual ownership of Torah, or our rich heritage, is obtained. One of them is “acceptance of suffering.” It’s been a tough two years, and many of us are suffering – some more than others. Would it make us suffer much at all – assuming one has no respiratory issues – to put a piece of cloth over our mouths when appropriate for a little while longer, if it means saving one or more lives?
The answer is above and beyond obvious. Shavua Tov.