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Last month, I joined the tens, even hundreds, of thousands of people who volunteered to be part of the COVID-19 vaccine trials. Scientists are especially looking for participants like myself: I’m a senior, closer to 80 years old than 70, with a medical history of heart disease.
I’m not telling you this to impress you. I was in the third wave of volunteers. The trial — in which there is a 1-in-3 chance that one receives a placebo — had little risk. I’m no COVID-19 hero.
Rather, my purpose is to encourage the larger community, including my own Jewish community — and especially those of older age and medical challenges — after consulting their doctor, to eagerly be inoculated once the COVID vaccines receive final approval from the Food and Drug Administration.
As a rabbi, I am a student of Jewish law, which underscores the importance of seeking out experts in their particular fields to help communities navigate worldly challenges. If the science says it’s helpful to take the vaccine, we should do so.
Indeed, for me, participation in the trial was nothing less than a spiritual high. The personal care shown by the AstraZeneca team at Montefiore Hospital in The Bronx was exceptional. Only after meticulously taking my medical history was the injection administered.
Just before, I asked if I could offer a meditation. The healers stood respectfully as I recited a prayer that some Jews say daily: “Blessed are you, Lord, healer of all flesh, who does wondrous deeds.”
The last words of the blessing may refer to God’s wondrous act of giving human beings the capacity to partner with Him to cure and make others well. Human beings are cooperators in divine wonders in this biblical vision.
Turning to those around me, I offered gratitude to the medical team for partaking in the partnership with God to fix the world, to bring cure to illness.
That moment reinforced a formula I’ve been sharing that may help us get through these difficult COVID times: Appreciate every day, focusing not on what we do not have, but on what we do have — on the ways we have been blessed.
Over the years, I have been inspired by the thinking of Dr. Viktor Frankl, the famed logotherapist, who insists that what motivates people is the search for meaning. Frankl argues that this is not only true in good times but in dire times, even in moments of suffering.
Leaving the medical center that day, I felt uplifted by this sense of purpose. Dr. Frankl’s theory of motivation was my reality.
This sense of purpose is reflected in the nature of Judaism’s commandments — virtually none of which speaks directly of individual rights. Rights are central to the Jewish doctrine, to be sure, as every human being is created in the image of God with unique value and infinite worth.
But at the foundation of our commandments is assuming responsibilities from which rights flow. The gateway to giving to self is giving to others.
This is an important lesson to realize, because when a vaccine is approved and distributed en masse, we ought all do the best we can to act responsibly, step back, make room for others and take our place in line to gratefully get inoculated.
We will, in the end, receive from having given.
The loss of life in America and around the world is beyond comprehension. More than 1.5 million souls have succumbed to COVID-19. Given this inexplicable reality, there will, God-willing, be a breakthrough. Some are even suggesting that COVID research may help in the battle against cancer and heart disease.
These months have been months of pain and setback. Nothing is worth the losses the world has experienced. But as Leonard Cohen heartfully expressed, and I, too, pray: “There is a crack in everything — that’s how the light gets in.”
Avi Weiss is founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in The Bronx and an activist for Jewish causes and human rights.
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