The widow, the orphan, the socially distant

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Fine believes this picture represents the ease with which we can fulfill our moral obligation to accommodate others. Photo taken from Travel and Leisure.

By Noah Fine
For Mitzpeh
@Mitzpeh

In the Torah reading of Parshat Ki Tavo (the Torah reading of the week when I wrote this article), we find a reference to the orphan, widow and stranger. The Torah states:

“Cursed be he who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.—And all the people shall say, Amen” (Devarim 27:19).

It got me thinking: Why are these three categories of people grouped together? The orphan and widow pairing makes sense: In a traditional family, when the father dies, he leaves behind a widow and orphans (by the Torah’s definition of orphans, at least). But how does the stranger fit in?

Several commentators answer that what binds these groups together is their powerlessness. Whether a lack of influential friends (Chizkuni) or a lack of anyone to advocate for them before a judge (Ibn Ezra), this trio represents the people who have little means of holding accountable anyone who subverts their rights; those who take advantage of this, knowing that there will be no repercussions, are therefore “cursed.” Thus, the lesson here is to be very cautious to protect the rights and freedoms of those who have no ability to protect them for themselves.

Many of you will likely find the idea of subverting someone else’s freedom simply because there are no repercussions to be repulsive, and we are fortunate to have grown up in a society that has trained us to think this way. Yet, I consistently see one issue where, at least within my age group, these mental dots fail to connect: Social distancing.

I hear many arguments from my fellow students for why one feels he/she doesn’t need to distance: That young people are at low risk (we don’t know long term effects*); that the university will close anyway, so the actions of an individual are irrelevant (though acting recklessly makes you morally complicit in the fallout); and that everyone who came to campus chose to take on high risk of getting COVID-19, so they have no right to tell others to distance (this simply isn’t true, nor is risk so binary). But I want to use the idea from Ki Tavo to address one specific argument: “I have a right to a social life, and we can’t let a small minority of people with underlying conditions shut down society for the rest of us.”

The Torah is very clearly against this argument: it doesn’t matter how small of a minority the powerless, those with no choice regarding social distancing, make up; if you have some right to a social life, they do too, and that needs to be accommodated.

Of course, it is difficult to define who is actually powerless with regard to social distancing. Someone with an underlying health condition leaving him/her with a high risk of death if he/she gets COVID-19? I think we could all agree that this individual is powerless when it comes to having a social life when others are behaving recklessly. But a normal teen who simply doesn’t want to get COVID-19? Most of us would probably say he/she has a choice. A freshman who really does not want to get kicked out of the dorms? Maybe there is some freedom of choice there.

It may seem that no one in your social circle is powerless to exercise their social rights. And that may be the case. Alternatively, there may be several at-risk people on the periphery of your social circle who are choosing between social isolation or getting COVID; and since people don’t come with tags which label all of their medical conditions, you have no way of knowing of their “powerlessness” in this situation. It isn’t a fair expectation that someone in this position should have to go around telling everyone else his/her sensitive medical information. You do not get to throw your hands up in the air and say “that’s their problem”; these individuals have just as much a right to a social life as you do, and if you ignore that simply because they can’t do anything about it, you clearly are violating the intent of the verse above.

I realize that this argument can be taken to an extreme, where we need to shut down society for the needs of one very unfortunate person, and at that point, your own rights to a social life would be subverted. Rather, we need a happy medium that maximizes everyone’s rights and significantly limits the spread of COVID-19. The 4 Maryland guidelines that this university has released are a start, but I’d encourage everyone to think of two or three things you can do to make those in your social circles who want to distance more comfortable. I’m not perfect, and I certainly could move some indoor hangouts outside. But we can extrapolate from the Torah reading that each of us has a moral responsibility to ensure that we are not subverting the social rights of those among us who have no choice regarding social distancing.