I have a friend who holds elective office who called me last week to ask me an ethical question. They were offered the opportunity to jump ahead of the line and receive the covid vaccine months before they would be otherwise eligible.
It was tempting. People in their family were immuno-compromised and the conduct of the office would be much easier without the constant fear of exposure to staff, constituents and others whose level of contagion was indeterminable. They asked me as a rabbi – is it ethical?
Before I tell you what I said, let me own up to envy. I am 68 years old and I have two medical conditions that put me in the third tier of eligibility. Once the health care workers and nursing home residents are inoculated, I will be next. But since Thanksgiving, thanks to the expected (and realized) surge of cases, I have diligently followed CDC recommendations and kept away from just about everyone. I haven’t gone to the grocery store, gotten a haircut, picked up my prescriptions, personally patronized the local businesses I have tried to support. Someone else (usually my younger and healthier wife) has done all of those things for me, except for the haircut (which you would know immediately if you saw me, which you won’t).
Each day, I get my exercise in by walking for close to an hour on a route that gives me plenty of room to stay multiples of six feet away from any other human being. If I see someone I recognize, I wave and shout.
I have not held my grandchildren, who live just an hour away, in just about four months. I know that still makes me luckier than a lot of people, but four months in the life of a toddler is a forever of new experiences.
My routine is routine. It includes reading the newspaper each morning and, not unusually for someone my age, watching both local and national news on television each evening. Even if you get your news from Facebook or Twitter, you know what I encounter every day.
The pandemic stories do not vary, but they still break my heart. Nurses in tears because they have never lost so many patients. Families devastated for the crime of a birthday party. A wizened doctor pleading with people to wear a mask so they won’t die. Grandmothers sitting in mile-long lines of cars hoping for a test or a bag of food. Single moms worried that they will be evicted because the rent is six months overdue and public assistance has evaporated.
But aside from the horrifying loss of life, the worst story for me was about the clinic that somehow got hold of a few hundred doses of vaccine and made them available to members of the owners’ faith community. Black market Moderna, as if they were starving Jews living in the ghetto.
Jews they were, as a matter of fact. They were willing to take those doses away from the doctors who were treating strangers in ambulances, from frail elderly imprisoned in nursing homes, from EMTs and firefighters and police who were tending to the victims of belligerent bar-hopping with naked faces. They reached out to certain respected rabbis from their community, men who were rightly embarrassed to discover that they were receiving contraband. But they did not reach out to Catholic priests, to Imams, to hospital chaplains caring for their own broken-hearted communities.
The Talmud discusses the dilemma of two men stranded in the desert, one with just enough water to survive and the other with none. What should they do? If one drinks, the other dies. If both drink, both certainly die. The conclusion, taught by the pre-eminent rabbi of all time, Akiva, is that the person with the water must drink and survive. Tragic though it may seem, he may not forfeit his life for another, and he may not forfeit both lives for the sake of principle. His claim on life in a time of scarce resources is non-transferable.
Those diverted doses of vaccine were spoken-for. The clinic owners stole life from a beloved uncle, an overworked respiratory therapist, the kid who delivers their groceries.
I really, really miss my grandchildren.
I told my friend that, ethically, they could not jump the line.
I spent 35 years in the pulpit and learned a few things about the people and the profession