Shabbat Tazria/Metzora: “The One Who is Ill Shall Be Separated from the Camp”

…and other surprisingly relevant aspects of ancient Jewish text in the days of COVID-19

In years past it has been tempting to dismiss this doubled parasha in VaYikra (Leviticus) as superstition at worst and outmoded at best. Because of the focus on skin disease, we laugh at “the dermatologists’ parsha” and wait for more uplifting examples of holiness and ethics in the chapters to come.

It’s a funny thing about ancient wisdom, though, how one day we are brought up against the fact that our human reality is, existentially, no different.

With only a few thousand years of human life between “the one with a strange and unknown infection showing on the skin” in the ancient Israelite camp and those of us with a strange and unknown infection of our own to fear, the parallels are striking:

  1. One is immediately quarantined, for a period of up to fourteen days. During the time of isolation one is followed by healthcare professionals
  2. One does not diagnose oneself
  3. One must not make light of the disease nor risk others’ health by not informing them
  4. The disease may be spread on surfaces
  5. The isolation lasts as long as there is a chance of contagion

The worst of it all, then and now, is the uncertainty. One may be seriously ill, or not, from the contagion; one may be isolated for a short period, or longer. 

Imagine the state of the one separated, for her good and ours, from the camp of the rest of us: the feelings of fear for one’s own future, compounded by the sense of guilt, wondering who else he may have infected. The boredom as the days go by; the second-guessing whether this is all really necessary. And the fear of death.

All this fear and uncertainty is magnified when we are alone with our thoughts; unlike a bad dream, we awake to the same lack of stability, the same worry that cannot be assuaged right now. It may be, tomorrow, but we cannot know today.

This is a terrifying time; but it is not grief, contrary to what you are being told by some opinion articles on line. Grief is existential loss; losing one’s high school graduation ceremony or one’s girls’ night out is difficult and disappointing. In the hierarchy of things, it ranks far below losing one’s job. And none of that compares to losing loved ones. 

We haven’t been taught this kind of hierarchy; many of us haven’t experienced this up close. We don’t have the vocabulary for our current experience close at hand. But our Jewish people does know this situation, and is familiar with it.

What we are experiencing is existential uncertainty.

This existential uncertainty is a terribly difficult condition for us all – especially for those who have not experienced anything like it before. Those who have known the way that poverty and prejudice can crush one’s plans have some wisdom to share, but those who have been accustomed to a comfortable sense of being able to enjoy planning a happy future are bereft.

The self is not meant to live in isolation. We are herd animals and we know who we are in relation to others with whom we live, and within groups where we feel safe. Of course, the safety and security was always an illusion, but it’s easy enough on a normal day to go shopping, or take a hike, or visit a friend to keep the fear below consciousness.

But now we are forced to face it. We have no way of knowing when this will be over, what the world will look like, or even if we will live to see it. In the meantime we Jews (and those who love us) know a tremendous blessing: our people has been here before. We know how one suffers existential fear and celebrates the holiness of life at the same time, without denying the truth of either reality. 

You may be feeling isolated. You may be feeling terrified. But you never need feel alone. You have a community, and opportunities to be in touch that will give you not only grounding, but help you develop the understanding, and perhaps even the wisdom, that only those who know the existential struggle, and its beauty, can know.

Shabbat Shemini: Teach Us To Count Our Days

למנות ימינו כן הודע ונביא לבב חכמה

Limnot yameynu keyn hoda’ v’navi levav hokhmah

“Teach us to count our days that we might acquire a heart of wisdom.”

Psalm 90.12

“What day is it?” This isolation we are practicing for the sake of public health, and the disruption of the routines that define the days for us, makes it hard to keep track of time. All the more reason to be grateful, I find, for the ancient Jewish practices that keep insisting on their relevance no matter what happens in our so-called secular (aka not Jewish) lives.

A curious coincidence: the name of our parashah this week is Shemini, which means “eighth.” And today is the eighth day of Sefirat ha’Omer, the Counting of the Omer. ”Who knows eight?” As the song at the end of the Seder proclaims, shmonah yemei milah, the eighth day is Brit milah, the Jewish covenant of circumcision which was the very first identity marker of which we know that was adopted by the Jewish people for all those with male bodies (regardless of expressions of gender or sexuality – you can find much more on that in the Talmud.) 

On the surface – p’shat – level, our parashat hashavuah, the parashah for this week in the Torah, describes the beginning of the sacrificial practices associated with the Mishkan, the tent set up on the middle of the Israelite camp in order to create a sense of connection between us and HaShem. But we are taught that there are four levels of interpretation for every verse, every word, every letter in the Torah. Digging deeper into levels of drash (“investigation”), remez (“hint”) and sode (“secret”) opens up for us a fascinating door into the profound meaning of counting our days.

We begin with the name of the parashah, shemini, “eighth.” The context of this number is provided at the end of last week’s parashah, with the words “Your ordination will require seven days.” (Lev. 8.33). The words are directed to the first kohanim, priests, who will serve in the Mishkan and were undergoing a week of training to prepare.

The eighth day in Jewish tradition symbolizes that which comes after the perfection of Creation. In seven days HaShem created the world, we are told in Bereshit, and on the eighth day the story of human action within that creation began. So also in this parashah, in which the Mishkan, which is a microcosm of Creation, becomes active on the eighth day, through human agency, in partnership with HaShem.

The Zohar, the primary source of much Jewish mystical speculation and insight, offers a closer, more literal reading of Leviticus 8.33.

כי שבעת ימים ימלא את ידכם

Shivat yamim y’maley et yedkhem 

Seven days shall fill your hands 

Drawing upon the unusual syntax, the Zohar suggests that “We have learned: they are six, all included in this (seventh) one, which is totality of them all.” The Seven mentioned here is Binah, “understanding,” the mother sefirah out of which the world of emotion, of physicality, in short of the world we know, was born.

The sefirot that compose our world are the six mentioned by the Zohar plus the final one that represents the world as we know it. Noting the similarity between the word sefirah, “counting” and the word sefirah, “characteristic”,  opens the mystical door to seeing these as the sefirot that we are to count during the Counting of the Omer period. 

There are many places on the web where you can find a daily guide for counting the Omer. It lists the sefirot that compose our world, as characteristics that also compose us, in the order of the weekly counting. In short, it offers you a profound way to meditate upon an intensely personal consideration of who you are, and how you are, both in your inner existence and in the world.* It can help you keep track of what day it is. More, it may fill your hands with a sense not only of each day that passes, but of the Binah, the wisdom, that gathers them, and us, all up.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Ariel

*there is much, more more to be said about this, and I have said it in my Because All Is One