April 24, 2020
30 Nisan, 5780
From Assistant Clergy Jay Stanton:
The term "quarantine" dates from the Black Death. While you may see articles suggesting public health developed as a response to the bubonic plague, many of these measures date back to ancient times. Identification and isolation of those afflicted, social distancing, designated providers, good hygiene, and, arguably, personal protective equipment are discussed in this week’s Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora. (Leviticus 12:1 - 15:33)
The portion discusses concepts we think of as modern, such as differential diagnosis. I don’t intend to venerate Leviticus as a medical text; rather, I think it’s important to acknowledge the failure to implement current epidemiological best practices to get ahead of COVID-19 has reduced us to the far less effective public health strategies of the ancient world. These strategies are nevertheless vital, and we must continue to do them.
While implementing these strategies, we have the advantage of maintaining community in ways the authors of Torah could never have conceived. Still, as Tzedek member Callie Benson-Williams points out, experiencing this pandemic will traumatize the whole community and world, both those who suffer from COVID-19 and those who don’t.
In this week’s Torah portion, a particularly gruesome ritual sacrifice marks the point of healing from the scaly skin disease (which is often mistranslated as leprosy, but is not leprosy) for those afflicted. The ritual requires two birds and some plants and takes place near the healing person outside the camp. The priest chooses one of the birds and slaughters it over a bowl of water. Then he dips the live bird and the plants into the blood mixture, and sprinkles the blood seven times on the healing person. Then the living bird is set free, still outside the camp.
Today, we call that bird torture. Yet, when we are able to safely end social distancing and establish our reconfigured community and societal roles, I think we will need some way - some ritual - to mark the end of the period of trauma we are currently experiencing. Callie points out the symbolism of the live bird in the ritual mentioned as a record of the experience of trauma. She also points out that the bird has freedom in a way that parallels the freedom of movement we will regain, but is forced away from the community. In this ritual, the ancient Israelites symbolized freedom from being defined by their biggest vulnerabilities in a complex and incomplete way.
Experts indicate that we may need to practice social distancing for quite some time. Planning for a ritual to mark the end of the pandemic seems counterintuitive, yet data suggests that hope is a key factor in building resilience, one of the qualities that is most helpful in mitigating the negative pyscho-social impact of social distancing.
So let’s put on our thinking caps: how will you personally make a record of this experience? What will be your humane, complex symbol of freedom?