Reports about infection cascade across the page. This invisible menace adheres on skin, clothing, and household surfaces. It’s not clear where the disease comes from or how it spreads, only that it must be contained and the afflicted quarantined.
One might easily expect that this scenario depicts the current reality of the coronavirus unfolding outside our windows and on our TV screens, but this dismal picture comes directly from this week’s Torah portion, Tazria-Metzorah. The only thing missing are the sirens that pierce the silence of New York City’s now empty streets.
The portion deals with a biblical malady called tzara’at that is believed to be similar to leprosy. For the afflicted, this condition impedes everyday life in the Israelite community. When the symptoms erupt, the Torah gives clear guidelines to the priests: “He shall be impure as long as the disease is on him. Being contaminated, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:46) Serving as much as government official as pastor, the kohen is called upon to separate the afflicted from the community.
Mah Nishtanah: On all other years, this almost overlooked Torah portion most commonly beckons us to comment on how we care for the sick or prevent the damaging effect of gossip.
But on this Shabbat in 2020, the relevance of this ancient text surges within our consciousness with the ferocity of a riptide. We look at these chapters like never before, standing united spiritually despite being separated physically.
It is logical for us to surmise that the rationale for the biblical quarantine is to shield the community and the afflicted soul from one another. Yet commentators across the generations note that the procedures in place do not sound entirely medical in nature.
If this detailed sacred source is not protecting public health, then what meaning does it hold for us? The Torah and Talmud link this affliction to the ethical failings of gossip, so the quarantine amounts to something akin to a social “time out.”
By contrast, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch asserts that this physical separation is not about time served but rather time away: “During this period of isolation he will contemplate changing his ways and will reconsider his past behavior. Thus, he will come to a change in his attitudes and undertake to improve his character, and, as a result, he will emerge from the test stage in a pure state.” In his eyes, the seven-day quarantine constitutes a sabbatical in the truest sense of the word. The separation represents an opportunity for internal growth that is more than skin deep. Walking back to the camp, the metzora is supposed to look at oneself and the world differently.
In some strange way, this biblical quarantine reminds me of shiva. Both experiences disrupt our daily lives and conclude with a transitional moment when it’s time to reenter society. Sadly, shiva during Covid-19 has been conducted under shelter-in-place rules.
My father died nearly 25 years ago. From the instant he breathed his last breath through the end of shiva, time was a surreal and numbing blur. After a week of remembering, crying, laughing, eating, and embracing, we concluded with the ritual of walking around the block, symbolizing our reentry into the normalcy of communal life.
What I didn’t expect was that crossing the threshold of our door would be a life-changing experience. In the matter of just days, the world looked different. Certain priorities and sources of anxiety were put into perspective. In short, a clarity had emerged about what matters.
One day, hopefully soon, when the Covid-19 virus has been defeated and the sirens are silenced, the moment will arrive for us to make a symbolic walk around the block to re-enter normal life.
Before we take that first step, let’s consider what we have learned about ourselves and our community since the beginning of March. The world we left behind faced serious challenges: political polarization that eroded civility, the environment, homelessness, food insecurity for the poor, racial inequality, sexism, xenophobia, and the plague that won’t go away, namely anti-Semitism. Looking out my own window, I realized that for the first time since the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre 18 months ago there hasn’t been a police car parked outside the synagogues across the street.
With social distancing, we have witnessed a sense of solidarity that we haven’t seen since 9/11. In addition to humanity’s circling of the wagons, this ferocious virus inspired us to reach out to old friends, let bygones be bygones, eat family dinner on daily basis, and acknowledge medical professionals, grocery staff and teachers as the unsung heroes that they are. At our finest hour during this dark chapter, we have achieved clarity about what matters.
Unfortunately retaining this clarity is extremely challenging, as Midrash Genesis Rabbah observes: “In time of trouble, people vow; in time of relief, they return to old habits.” The rabbis understand that clarity evaporates quickly if isn’t intentionally integrated into our souls.
Rabbi Hirsch writes that the quarantine of the biblical metzora reveals the “discrepancy between the life that he leads in the world and the life that he is called upon to lead.” The same can be said of us today.
While sheltering in place enables us to reflect on life’s priorities, the biggest challenge is retaining the clarity that has emerged within us. When tomorrow comes, will we build on what unites us to tackle humanity’s current and future challenges or do we go back to our tribal and frequently petty divisions?
Before walking across the threshold of our doorstep, do we truly want to go back to “normal?” I don’t.
Rabbi Charles E. Savenor serves as the Director of Congregational Education at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York.