JERUSALEM (VINnews) — Rabbi Asher Weiss received a letter from a New York nurse bemoaning the fact that in her haste and tiredness she may have inadvertently caused the death of a coronavirus patient. He responded to her with the following answer (published in Kikar Hashabbat):
I wish to respond briefly to the painful question posed by one of your former students, and I will readily admit that when I read the question my eyes filled with tears from the pain and integrity of this pious Jewish girl. This 22-year-old woman works as a nurse specializing in the field of respiratory diseases in a large New York hospital. At the height of the pandemic, when tens of thousands got infected and fell sick, after she had completed a difficult shift, she was asked by the ward director to stay overnight due to a critical shortage of personnel, and she agreed out of her devotion to the sick and her deep understanding of the commandment to save lives.
After twenty hours of consecutive, exhausting work without a break, a sick person arrived at 3 A.M. The patient had serious difficulty breathing and an irregular pulse and was hovering between life and death. While giving instructions to the staff, she attached the patient to a respirator.
However as his situation deteriorated she realized that she had mistakenly mixed up the tubes and had not connected him properly. She mentions in her letter that due to a lack of respirators, the hospital had received some old machines which were designated for home use and were unfamiliar to the staff and this caused the mistake in addition to her fatigue and exhaustion after twenty straight hours of work. She immediately fixed the mistake but within a short time the doctors were forced to declared the patient dead.
She says that since this event she has not stopped crying and doesn’t know how to continue. At a time when her friends repent due to a slight chance that they may have spoken lashon hara (slander) on their friends or did not respect their grandparents enough, she is forced to deal with her guilty conscience about having possibly caused the death of a Jew. Before Yom Kippur she asked how she might attain atonement.
I say that this righteous woman can calm down and restore her strength, since when her friends will receive reward for not speaking loshon hora on their friends or for respecting their grandparents, she will receive huge reward for saving lives and preserving worlds, as our Sages say that “he who preserves one Jewish soul is considered akin to one who preserves an entire world.”
On the unfortunate incident which Hashem brought about for her she will not be punished at all since our Sages say that “he shall provide for his cure” (Shemot 21: 19)- this teaches that a doctor has permission to cure. Ramban in Torat Ha’adam explains: “Lest a doctor say what do I need this bother for, I might err and inadvertently kill people, therefore the Torah gave him permission to cure people….and if he inadvertently made a mistake he has no punishment at all.”
Ramban adds that not only is it a mitzva and obligation to treat the sick but “any doctor who knows this wisdom and profession must cure people and if he prevents himself he is deemed to have spilt blood. The Ramban is quoted by the Tur who adds “but he must be very careful as if required in the laws of life and death.”
All this refers to a doctor who inadvertently kills someone but in our case she did not kill the person at all but only did not save his life by mistake. This is deemed unavoidable and is much more lenient. Even if a person who mistakenly kills deserves exile, one who mistakenly does not save someone and was prevented by exigency from performing the mitzvah of saving a life, he has no punishment. Not only does the Torah exempt a person for an involuntary act but in this case she did the best she could to save him in every possible way and was totally involved in saving him but due to her exhaustion she made a mistake and this is completely involuntary and in such cases she has no sin or punishment.
Those who must give an account of their actions and confess their sins are not the doctors and nurses working devotedly in inhuman conditions while endangering their lives but rather the people who in their arrogance and stupidity ignore the directives of doctors and act with cruelty, causing the spreading of the pandemic which has killed so many.
In conclusion, I say to this righteous woman “Go, eat your bread joyfully and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already accepted your deeds.”