Last year I accidentally gave my child chickenpox.
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If this statement doesn't seem like a big deal to you, that's likely because you had chickenpox as a kid and you have older children who also had the pox. However, my son's illness was quite startling considering that, thanks to vaccines, the number of people who have gotten chickenpox annually in the U.S. has dropped from 4 million to 350,000 over the past decade and a half.
My son got chickenpox because I got shingles. The shingles virus lays dormant in adults who had chickenpox when they were kids. In some people, it remains dormant forever. In others, it flares up when their immune system is weak. In my case, the virus struck after a particularly exhausting Yom Kippur. My son was 16 months old at the time, and was therefore a few weeks overdue for the first dose of the vaccine. Like many new parents who get lost in all of the sick visits and regular check-ups, we hadn’t yet scheduled his vaccination appointment. Within a few days, he began to develop the pox.
We obviously felt terrible; we’re still a little guilt-ridden about it. However, if there was one very important takeaway from what thankfully turned out to be a minor hiccup on the journey of parenting, it's that it's wrong to assume that when your child gets sick, your family is the only one affected.
Every action that we take, every choice that we make as individuals, affects the community around us. Fortunately, we caught the pox early enough to keep our son out of daycare, otherwise he might have spread it to other children or even adults. My wife and I both missed a week of work, which affected the communities that we serve. We had to miss my brother’s engagement party because some of our adult family members never had chickenpox; had they come in contact with our son, they could have ended up in the hospital. We chose to take these precautions after the fact because we realized that as parents, and as Jews, we have a greater responsibility for the health of our community.
And this is why all children, regardless of the parents' preference, should be vaccinated.
Jewish tradition requires us in certain cases to forgo our own individual preferences or beliefs for the sake of the peace of the greater community. This value is called mipnei darchei shalom (Mishna Gittin 5:8), which in many contexts could be translated as “things we do to promote good relations with non-Jews.” However, the Mishna suggests that this term may be interpreted more broadly to mean “things we do to better society in an otherwise chaotic world.”
This is why I fundamentally disagree with those who, in light of the measles epidemic, argue that it's important that vaccination remain an individual choice.
I am not going to suggest that Jewish parents vaccinate their kids based on the overwhelming evidence supporting the safety of vaccinations. Plenty of excellent medical doctors have already done that.
But as a rabbi, I argue that a parent's decision not to vaccinate signals a belief that the needs of his or her child supersede the community's welfare. Such a decision goes against the Jewish values that dictate promoting peace and building a better world. Mipnei darchei shalom reminds us that there is a precedent in Jewish tradition for doing things for the good of the community, even though these actions may not be in accord with our individual preference.
As our sages teach, Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Bazeh: We are all responsible for each other.
Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, N.J. You can follow him on twitter @danieldorsch.