By Rabbi Ari Perl
These past few weeks have been unlike anything we’ve ever experienced. Through lockdowns, travel restrictions, business closures and market meltdowns, COVID-19 has taken complete control over our social, recreational, professional and even spiritual lives. Anxiety levels are through the roof.
The great Russian author Anton Chekhov wrote his five most famous plays after contracting tuberculosis in the late 19th century epidemic that swept across Russia. In his work Epidemics and Society, Yale historian Frank Snowden points out that all five portray protagonists who mirror Chekhov’s personal experience, “unable to act, as they find themselves trapped, waiting and waiting for the outcome of events beyond their control.” To experience a pandemic is to experience helplessness, and even despair.
What keeps us going is the knowledge that ‘this too shall pass.’ Even as we bemoan the uncertainty of tomorrow, we are confident that in a few weeks — months, at most — the lockdown will be lifted and life will return, more or less, to the way it was before.
But not for everyone.
For some, the quarantine will never lift.
For the 112,000 people on the waiting list for a life-saving organ transplant, life after COVID-19 will not return to normal. Complications from either their illness or its treatment will continue to restrict their movement, limit their social interaction and interfere with their livelihood. Immunodeficiency, overwhelming fatigue, and utter dependence on treatments like dialysis or a Berlin Heart, will continue to exert complete control over their lives. When Coronavirus is gone, the 10,000 New Yorkers,including roughly 1,000 members of the Jewish community, in need of a transplant will still need to shelter-in-place.
Our lives will return to normal, but without a lifesaving organ donation their quarantine will never be lifted.
While the focus of Seder Night is on the exodus from Egypt, much of Judaism’s moral bedrock was formed by the slavery that preceded it. The Torah’s charge to create an ethical and compassionate society which combats injustice, roots out exploitation and protects the vulnerable often demands that we “remember that you were once slaves in the Land of Egypt.” Having experienced persecution and indignity ourselves — not only in Egypt but repeatedly throughout our history — we are morally obligated to stand up for the downtrodden and oppressed.
As the holiday of Passover draws to a close, we look forward to the end of social distancing and a return to normalcy. But having experienced first-hand the crippling effect of isolation on our social, emotional and professional lives, we must acknowledge our moral obligation to stand up for those languishing on the transplant waiting list. As national Donate Life Month, April is a perfect time to register as an organ donor, become better informed about Judaism’s very positive view of organ donation and then educate family members and friends about this great mitzvah of pikuach nefesh (saving lives).
By next Passover, our isolation and anxiety will hopefully be nothing more than a memory. But like our experience in Egypt, remembering what that was like obligates us to restore hope to those whose quarantine won’t be lifted until they receive the gift of life.
Rabbi Ari Perl is vice president of Jewish Community Engagement at LiveOnNY, the non-profit organization that oversees all deceased donor organ donation in NYC and the surrounding NY counties. During his 20 years as a congregation rabbi, Rabbi Perl also served as VP of the Rabbinical Council of America, president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Dallas and as a federation board member. He can be reached at email@example.com.