Rabbi Amy Eilberg
A mysterious disease strikes
Uncannily, this Torah portion describes a mysterious disease that afflicts individuals and homes. It produces a perplexing range of symptoms that only an expert can identify. Even then, it takes time before a diagnosis can be confirmed. Then, the patient must be isolated from the community. “They shall dwell apart; their dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Leviticus 13:46).
In the past, it has been difficult to find meaning in the laws on tzara’at, (often mistranslated as “leprosy”). This year, these descriptions seem eerily familiar. What is this disease? How will we know when we have it? How can we be healed of it? How are we to protect the community from illness when some are infected? These are the questions at the center of our lives in these days of corona.
In particular, I am struck this year by the instruction to isolate the afflicted person from the camp. The language of the text is deeply evocative. The words “Badad yeisheiv” (“They shall dwell apart”) are reminiscent of one of the saddest texts in all of the Bible, and in Jewish life. “Eicha yashva badad ha’ir rabati am; hayta k’almanah.” “Lonely sits the city once great with people! She that was great among nations is become like a widow …” (Lamentations 1:1). So does the Book of Lamentations begin its heart-wrenching description of the state of Jerusalem, destroyed by her enemies and by failures of leadership. The mournful melody we use to chant these words elicits a sense of profound collective tragedy.
In these days of pandemic, our once-bustling neighborhoods are empty of cars, our city centers and favorite parks are weirdly deserted. We stand in line outside the grocery store, only to find empty shelves and nervous customers seeking safety in masks and gloves.
We live in a pandemic of fear. We are frightened of what will come next: whether we or our loved ones will become ill, whether our health care system will be up to the task, and what will happen to the economy in the months and years to come.
We live, too, in collective grief: for those already lost and those who are ill, for the loss of our comfortable routines and our confidence in structures we thought infallible. We grieve for cancelled events and lost opportunities for connection with our dear ones. And we grieve in anticipation of losses yet to come.
And we live with the pain of isolation. We live badad — alone — our loneliness mitigated only by technology. The Torah tells us, at the very beginning of Genesis, “lo tov lihiyot ha’adam levado.” “It is not good for a person to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).
We are social animals, craving the nourishment of human contact, cooperation and love. Being with others is essential to our well-being. We ache for the sustenance of normal human interaction and human touch.
At the same time, we live in the midst of an epidemic of heroism and kindness. Our medical professionals endanger themselves every day, caring for the ill. People on whom society depends, though too often invisibly, work on the front lines — cleaning buildings where essential work is done, harvesting and delivering our food and caring for elders, among a myriad of thankless tasks. Communities have stepped into a new frontier of social interaction, connecting with the vulnerable, and rapidly devising new ways to do community. There is a dramatic outbreak of kindness in the air, as so many of us reach out to others and drink in their care for us.
What does all of this suggest for who we will be as individuals and as a society when the virus is under control? When we have grieved our losses and returned to a more normal way of life, will we as a society have learned anything?
Imagine with me that the experience of collective fear and the flow of kindness in this time will have transformative impact after the crisis has passed. Imagine that this experience will turn compassion toward other human beings into a regular way of life. Why return to a “normalcy” in which neighbors do not care for their neighbors or notice those on whom our well-being depends? Why rush back to our pre-corona “normal” of turning our collective backs on those who are vulnerable by virtue of illness, poverty or social marginalization? Would we really want to turn from the profound sense of interconnectedness with all people on the planet back to a reality in which we hate our “enemies”?
Let us begin to prepare for the new reality. When we have come through this, let us turn our pain, fear and loneliness into a new way of being with others in our lives and as citizens of the world. Let us transform our collective experience of anxiety and loss into a worldwide movement of embracing the entire human family. From all of this pain, may kindness, justice and universal connection become the new normal.
This column first appeared in J Weekly, at https://www.jweekly.com/2020/04/24/in-this-weeks-torah-portion-a-mysterious-disease-strikes/.