On Feb. 20, 2021, The Newport Daily News published an article by Rabbi Marc Mandel of Rhode Island’s Touro Synagogue entitled, “CLERGY CORNER: Is there a blessing for the COVID-19 vaccine?”
Before he answers the question, Rabbi Mandel addresses the relationship between religion and science. He quotes Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Mussar movement, who was living in Vilna during an 1848 cholera epidemic. Rabbi Salanter said, “Be sure to follow the behaviors which the wise doctors prescribe, for walking in the light of their words is also our religious duty, thus upholding life in this physical world to be good and to do good.” He was speaking to a Jewish audience, and was, I think, referring to medicine as a science.
During the 1848 epidemic, Rabbi Salanter purportedly organized week-round—including Shabbat!—volunteer Jewish care for Jews suffering from cholera. He believed that saving lives was a higher duty than observing Shabbat. During Yom Kippur that year, he demonstratively ate because he believed that people needed to prioritize their health over fasting during the epidemic. The religious authorities in Vilna were miffed with Salantar and felt they should have been consulted, but he did not change his position. At the time, he had yet to achieve his future renown.
Rabbi Mandel gave a different reason for blessing the COVID-19 vaccine: Judaism has a blessing for good news! His colleague Rabbi Yosie Levine from New York reminds us, “As the Talmud teaches, hearing exceptionally good tidings is reason enough to recite this blessing:”
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הַעוֹלָם, הַטוֹב וְהַמֵטִיב׃
“Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who is good and does good.”
Rabbi Mandel returns to his introduction by quoting Rabbi Barry Dolinger of Providence: “I hope that all of us in Rhode Island will soon have the opportunity to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, and when you receive yours, you might join me in reciting the blessing, ‘Blessed are You, God, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.’”
We will recite that blessing, the Shehecheyanu, on Saturday night when we light the Passover lights, and at the kiddush during the seder.
There are many ways to celebrate Passover. It is a joyous occasion as we remember our emergence as a people. But it will be particularly bittersweet as we think about lives, health and shared moments lost to the plague we have been experiencing for over a year.
Chag Pesach sameach from Jewish Newport!
Here is a video to help you enjoy the holiday.
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