In seeing footage of members of the Orthodox Jewish communality in Brooklyn publicly burning masks has filled me with outrage and disgust. It reminds me of when Hitler burned Jewish books in Nazi Germany. I recognize that this came in reaction to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s increasing restrictions on what is largely Orthodox Jewish communities where COVID is spreading like wildfire. Yet I cannot get over how something that is life-affirming can be treated with so much anger. Wearing a mask is so important it even has a blessing, creating by my colleague Rabbi Michael Knopf בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְ‑יָ אֱ‑לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ עַל שְּׁמִירַת הַנֶּפֶשׁ which he translates “You are bountiful, Infinite our God, majesty of space and time, who has sanctified us with divine commandments and has commanded us about protecting life.” How can something that protects life, that is invaluable to our stopping COVID-19, be treated with so much derision? How can masks be burnt in the streets of Brooklyn, just as the Nazis took our holy works and publicly burnt them?
There is a larger lesson here as I see it. Leadership beings at the top. When our President steps out of a helicopter after being released from the hospital and takes off his mask, it sends a message to others. As Orthodox anti-mask activist Heshy Tischler told The Forward, “When I’m on the street, I don’t have to wear a mask, just like the president.” Our leaders either affirm the importance of life through the wearing of masks in this pre-vaccine era or they use the mask as a political weapon to be discarded on a whim.
Similarly, seeing ads saying “My Body, My Choice” as a way for people not to wear masks fill me with rage, especially as many of these same people don’t respect a women’s right to her own body. I am grateful that the President received a speedy recovery with a treatment that contained fetal tissue. In Judaism, the life of a person supersedes the life of a fetus. At the same time, I would hope that he and his followers would consider the maxim of pikuah nefesh, the safeguarding of a human life at all costs, and how wearing a mask helps us do this. Wearing a mask is not a wussy thing for the “macho man” to avoid; rather it sends a message that I value your life equally to my own and will do whatever I can to safeguard it. It sends the message that each of us is responsible for our actions towards each other.
Let us appreciate and be grateful for all our measures of safeguarding life, masks being a crucial one. May we also be appreciative of the rapid progress in vaccine development and pray that the day comes soon when we see at least one vaccine. If we are angry, stressed or frustrated with how our lives have been upended since mid-March, let us try to find a constructive way to handle that anger, rather than burning masks. In the end, creativity, resilience and constructive activity will win out over those who act destructively.