A strange story in this week’s Torah portion, only six verses long:
They set out from Mount Hor by way of the Sea of Reeds to skirt the land of Edom. But the people grew restive on the journey, and the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food.” God sent seraph serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned by speaking against God and against you. Intercede with God to take away the serpents from us!” And Moses interceded for the people. Then God said to Moses, “Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard. And if anyone who is bitten looks at it, they shall recover.” Moses made a copper serpent and mounted it on a standard; and when anyone was bitten by a serpent, they would look at the copper serpent and recover. (Numbers 21:4-9)
On it’s face, its a common trope in the book of Numbers. On their wanderings in the desert on the way to the Promised Land, the Israelites complain about the hardship and wish to return, God gets upset, the people repent, ask Moses to intercede, and the people are forgiven. A version of this story is found several times throughout the Torah.
The specifics in this instance are interesting and almost magical. God punishes the people by sending snakes to bite them, and the remedy is a bronze statue of a serpent that the people look at to be cured.
Yes, the image of a punishing God is difficult and one that does not align with contemporary theology. But we can read beyond this ancient understanding to see what is recognizable–this is a story of an outbreak that infects the population, bringing illness and death. And the resolution of the outbreak is to introduce into the population an artificial version of the outbreak.
It is, I suggest, a biblical story of vaccines.
This has been a challenging and difficult year, not only because of the illness and death that marked the pandemic, but also because the measures we needed to take in order to protect ourselves and others–quarantining, masking, and physical separation–took their own toll. The need to separate from extended family and friends, to not gather in community, to forgo casual physical contact like handshakes and hugs impacted our emotional health even as they kept us physically safe.
Now we have a tool to bring us back together, the vaccines.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have leaned into the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, of saving a life. This value teaches that protecting the health and safety of oneself and others is paramount, even so far as to support the violation of other mitzvot if necessary. (For example, if one needs to eat for health reasons, then is not only permissible to eat on the fast day of Yom Kippur, the most sacred day of the year, but it is forbidden to fast.) Last year we demonstrated pikuach nefesh by staying physically apart and wearing masks when around others. Now we can demonstrate pikuach nefesh by getting vaccinated.
One may look upon vaccinations as a personal choice, and indeed they are. And at the same time our personal choices have consequences beyond ourselves. This points to another Jewish value: kol yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh, everyone is responsible for one another. The Talmud talks about this concept in the context of sin–one person’s transgressions increase the negativity in the world. We can read it that any action impacts not only us, but those with whom we are in relationship and community. There are times when we are called upon to sacrifice a little personal liberty for the common good. Vaccines protect not only ourselves–as the individual vaccinated rate climbs higher, it protects our entire community.
Indeed, if those who are able to get the vaccine do so, then it protects those who can’t get it for health reasons, or who are immunocompromised even with it. A choice not to vaccinate puts others at risk. It is our obligation, therefore, to do so. The science supports the vaccine, and from a Jewish perspective science and spirituality are not antithetical. And by allowing us to come together again, to hug and touch, to sing and laugh, the vaccines support not only our physical health but our emotional health as well.
In this short biblical story, we are told that the cure for the disease (snake infestation) is a variation of the disease itself (snake statue). Regardless of the biology of the COVID vaccine and how it may or may not differ from other types of vaccines, there is truth to this. Humanity had developed a wide range of medical interventions to preserve and protect life. Sometimes these are administered once illness has occurred, other times they are administered to prevent illness in the first place. This ability to intervene is one way we demonstrate our sacred power to join as partners with God in the creation and preservation of life.
And by making use of these interventions, we show compassion and care to ourselves and to each other. We are in this together. An individual vaccine benefits us all.