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The Cruelty of Social Distancing
Shabbat Emor

The Cruelty of Social Distancing

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat Candles: 7:42 p.m.
Torah: Lev. 21:1-24:23
Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15-31
Havdalah: 8:47 p.m.

Screen One: Shiva. The mourner* has lost his elderly mother. She had led a meaningful and productive life. Had a loving large family. Lots of grandchildren. She was not sick with Covid and had a chance to say goodbye to the people she loved most, mostly through FaceTime.

The mourner is surrounded by those who love him. His wife. His four children. Friends from around the world. Each of us, including his immediate family is beyond touch, framed by a square. He is sobbing. The grieving son tells poignant stories about his mother, about the love that sustained him and brought him to this place. When a friend from New York shares a memory, we hear an ambulance in the background. We pray together, yet apart. He utters the words of the Kaddish. I want to reach out and touch him. Instead, each of us remains in our impenetrable frames.

Screen Two: A memorial marks a tragic death. A young man taken by sudden violence. A loving, generous person. A man who many described as luminous. Seventy-five family members and friends from near and far join on one screen to lament, to rage, to grieve. Some sing heart-wrenching songs reflecting our collective grief. We sing along, alone, all of us muted but one, because singing together on Zoom yields dissonance. The screen makes us feel that we are together as one, but when we try to sing as one that illusion is shattered.

Screen Three: Her mother was taken by Covid 3,000 miles away in a distant land. Died alone. Her daughter made her life, work and family in America. She could not be with her mother to comfort her as she took her last breaths. She was a devoted daughter. Would have flown anywhere in the world to nurse her mother through her last days. But here she was on the wrong side of the Atlantic, sick with the same virus that took her mother, and barely able to sit up for Zoom shiva, as friends and family from around the world did their best to sustain her.

Scene (not screen) Four: “And the Lord said to Moses: Speak to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: Let none [of you] defile himself for a dead person among his people except for his relative who is close to him, his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother” [Leviticus 21:1-2].

In this week’s parsha, the priest is instructed not to come close to the dead except for his immediate blood relatives. The Talmud [Eruvin 48a] and the codes based on it define this distance as four cubits, “For a corpse affects four cubits with respect to communication of uncleanness” [Shulkhan Aruch Yoreh Deah 371]. Hence, a Kohen must not come within four cubits of a corpse so as not to touch the corpse or overshadow him or a grave.

Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses

Four cubits was a halachic category that measured the space a person occupies — personal space, so to speak. Every person is granted four cubits of her own as she moves through the world.

But here’s the thing: The ancient measurement of four cubits, all agree, measures roughly six feet.

Uncanny coincidence? Maybe not — the ancient world and suddenly our own apparently measure personal space the same way. Thanks to social distancing guidelines, we’ve suddenly entered the world of the priest.

But most of us are not priests. And many of the kohanim among us do not abide by these laws. The temple is long gone. We do not traffic in priestly notions of purity. Only now we know how cruel these laws could be. We know now that we are not meant to grieve at a distance. It is a fundamental disruption to being human. Nor are we disembodied angels. We are simply human. We are flesh and blood and want to be near other bodies. We want to reach out with the warmth of touch in the face of cold death.

And yet, at this moment, I am grateful for these magic pixels that allow us to reach out to one another, even without touching. At this moment we understand the cruel stricture the priest had to abide. And we understand a priestly holiness that we don’t wish to know, a level of existence we never wanted to reach. Our love knows no bounds. We are reaching higher than ever, loving each other at a distance, soothing each other from across our lonely shelters. The love I’ve witnessed has been at once inspiring and heart-wrenching. We are flesh and blood, breathing and yearning, reaching for one another, in the only way we can right now. We are held by an unstoppable love.

*Personal details have been changed to protect privacy.

Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses is associate rabbi and director of lifelong learning at Romemu.

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