QUARANTINE, SOCIAL DISTANCING AND THE ETHICS OF CONTAGION IN THE TORAH
This week’s Torah portion, Tazria-Metzorah is all about contagion, epidemics, social distancing, and quarantine. It is focused on what to do about a mysterious outbreak of an illness called “Tzara’a’t.” It is often translated as “leprousy” but is not what we today call leprosy or Hansen’s Disease. It starts on the skin, but can also infect the walls of a house, and even old stones. The portion is focused on how to prevent the disease from spreading. It is eerily familiar to us now…
This time we are living in has come to be called “The Great Pause.” It reminds me of times I’ve been at yoga or meditation retreats and was asked to pay attention to the space between inhaling and exhaling, the rest, the time between what was and what will be.
It is not like America to pause, or the global economy to pause, and we’ve already noticed some interesting things.
First of all, we’ve found out that we can actually stop. That is profound in itself.
We’ve seen the canals in Venice turn clear, and the skies over China clear. The “Great Pause,” as writer Julio Vincent Gambuto calls it, is producing the following: “A carless Los Angeles has clear blue skies as pollution has simply stopped. In a quiet New York, you can hear the birds chirp in the middle of Madison Avenue. Coyotes have been spotted on the Golden Gate Bridge. These are the postcard images of what the world might be like if we could find a way to have a less deadly daily effect on the planet.”
On Sinai, Moses and God are having another serious meeting; let’s think of it as a Zoom meeting on Sinai between two beings who can’t really be in the same space safely. They are discussing important business matters, like who is going to lead us out of the wilderness. Moses says, ‘you have to do it,’ but God is hedging, so Moses convinces God to say, “OK, enough with this, I’ll go in front.”
At the end of the First Book of Samuel, we find King Saul, near the end of his life and rule, the Philistines are massing on his borders, and he doesn’t know what to do. He is afraid, overwhelmed, and needs to make a plan, but when he consults with the High Priest and with God, there is no answer. He becomes so desperate to know what will happen, to know how to plan that he disguises himself and goes to the town of Endor to consult the Witch of Endor who will raise up the ghost of Samuel to give him advice. Samuel’s ghost is furious for having been disturbed and only tells him, to paraphrase Larry David paraphrasing Bernie Sanders, “you’re doomed!”
I wrote my Rabbinic Dissertation on this part of the Bible…
This week, we finish reading the book of Breishit, Genesis. Think, for a moment, about how much of the world’s literature is rooted in the stories of Genesis. In many ways, the stories in Genesis with their heroic but deeply flawed characters, messy family dynamics, dashed hopes and rising from adversity – these capture so much that is fundamental about what it means to be human.
But there is one aspect of Genesis that feels particularly touching today…
As you know, Hanukkah is not a holiday found in the TaNakh, the Hebrew Bible. The Mishnah, the first collection of Jewish law after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, barely mentions Hanukkah, and then in oblique ways. The early rabbis that preserved and transformed Judaism in this period, especially those living under Roman occupation, might not have thought celebrating a holiday of violent rebellion was a good strategy. And yet the holiday persisted and grew, and over time gained special prayers in the Amidah, and the holiday prayers called Hallel are recited.
First of all, I want to congratulate David Shiman, chair of our Social Action Committee here at Sinai, who was recently awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from Human Rights Educators U.S.A.
This week’s Torah portion is Vayeitzei, from Breishit, or Genesis. It starts in medias res after Jacob has stolen Esau’s birthright and tricked Isaac into getting the blessing for the first born. Both of Jacob’s parents have told him he needs to go immediately to Abraham’s old home in Harran, but for completely different reasons. Rebecca tells him to flee because his brother Esau might kill him for stealing the blessing.
In Genesis, when God creates humankind, it reads:
הִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃ הִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱ וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱ
And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. It is a curious line, that God creates man, and then it says, “male and female He created them.” Is it him or them? Is it one or more?
This week’s Torah portion might be the one with the most well‐known stories packed into it. It includes the two stories we read at Rosh HaShanah each year, Sarah kicking out Hagar and Ishmael, and Abraham almost sacrificing Isaac, “the Akedah.” But it also has Sarah laughing when her angelic visitors tell her she is going to be pregnant at age 90, and it has Abraham arguing with God about destroying Sodom if he can find just ten good people. It has Lot’s wife turning to salt. It has Lot’s daughters…
“WE ARE FORBIDDEN TO BE OLD” – HAPPY 90TH TO BEV BETTEMANN
Psalm 90 tells us: Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures;
So Bev, and all you others that are near or over 90, what is your secret? I think you are the superheroes that Marvel hasn’t made a movie about… yet.
But don’t get too full of your age-power. Remember that Sarah was 90 when she found out she was pregnant with Isaac…