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.

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