Saturday, April 25, 2020

Taking on the Mantle of the Priest

I deliverd this as the d'var Torah (sermon, or literally "words of Torah") on Saturday, April 25, 2020 at Temple Beth Israel in Waltham, MA.

Imagine living a world where—in fear of a poorly understood illness that presents in varying ways—people are forced to isolate from society and even stay away from their place of worship, the center of their community. Imagine that we are unsure of how the illness might live on and spread from surfaces, so we worry about keeping our homes and clothing sanitary. What would this be like, if it were hard to pin down how long we should isolate, or to understand the implications of various complications? And what would we do if it began to impact our financial security?
In the past, when reading Tazria and Metzora—today’s double portion that describes how to deal with  skin disease and other states of impurity—this all seemed like an anachronistic concept that we could barely imagine. Now, it seems more familiar…yet still so strange. Many of us talk about what we’ve been experiencing over the last months as something out of science fiction, or a crazy world from which we will eventually return to normal.
But it’s real. And those in the public health arena, particularly those who subscribe to the concept of One Health, have not been surprised. They have expected a pandemic. One Health describes the collective health of people, animals, and the environment in which they live, and in particular the effect that each of these has on the health of the others. Through that lens, we see that our impact on the planet as a whole, and on all of its components, directly affects human health. And as we practice a global economy—yet often isolate politically—we intensify shared threats while building barriers to joint solutions. When we place conveniences of modern society and commerce over the health of our planet—rather than finding ways to live, conduct business,  and govern in balance—we put ourselves in jeopardy. I say this neither as a political stance nor as an accusation, but as a statement of recognition. We all bear responsibility—such as the decision Brad and I made to experience and celebrate the great human, animal and plant diversity of the world when we spent last November traveling Australia and New Zealand, yet we actively supported the harmful impact of the carbon footprint as we took more than twelve airplane trips over the course of those 3-1/2 weeks.
During our virtual Shabbat dinner last night, our daughter talked about conversations she’s held with recent alumni of the Master of Public Health program in which she works; they all tell her that, because of their One Health education, they knew that this—the seemingly science fiction world in which we’re living—was scientifically very likely.
The day-to-day impact of Covid-19 will end. The key difference between the Biblical story and our own is the advent of science. There will be treatments, and there will be a vaccine. But for now, we live with something that feels oddly similar to the world described by Tazria and Metzora. So what can we learn from that world?
Rabbi Shai Held, in The Heart of Torah, reminds us that Leviticus seeks to create order by setting clear boundaries. The examples of impurity that arise in in Tazria occur where the boundaries are blurred. This creates not a moral ambiguity but a ritual one. In the example of childbirth, which is the first subject of the parashah, new life emerges in a process that puts the mother’s life at risk and requires great loss of blood—the life force. This blurring of the most critical of boundaries, the one between life and death, yields a state of ritual impurity that needs to be repaired. Clearly morality is not in question—the Torah encourages procreation—so impurity is in no way a moral issue.
Rabbi Held argues that Metzora—the skin disease—is described as similar to decomposition,  placing the afflicted firmly in that blurred state between life and death. It is no wonder that it signals impurity. This state of impurity suddenly moves us away from a Torah that preaches visiting the sick—bikkur holim—to one that forces their isolation.
And this is exactly where we are today. We want to visit our sick, to sit shiva with mourners, to celebrate a b’ris or a baby naming—but doing so blurs the lines between life and death—it places the rituals of living our lives together directly in the path of the disease.
But something else is happening in the parashah. At every turn, we not only are enforcing isolation, but also considering how to mitigate the hardships and how to return to community.
Isolation is not intended as punishment, much as it may feel punishing. As in our situation, it is part of a process intended to allow for assessment, cure and reintegration. Though not always successful, the priest repeatedly examines the afflicted person with the hope of declaring their purity and returning them to society. In fact, it is so important to effect reintegration, that upon learning of a person’s healing the priest must at that moment leave the camp to conduct the lengthy purification process.
The ritual includes specified offerings, yet with more affordable options for those who are poor. Everyone, regardless of means, deserves healing and community. In fact, little could be more equalizing that the experiences of isolation and return.
The text then turns to a similar plague in the stones of a building—likely a mold or fungus, but in the context clearly associated in some way with the skin affliction. Both are seen as an eruption that causes impurity. Just as we now are weighing the human cost of Covid-19 against the economic hardships of its containment, the Torah seeks to mitigate the impact of a plague while protecting a family’s personal economy. Given that nothing is impure until the priest declares it to be, he has the house emptied of possessions before he examines it. Thus, if he declares the space impure, the possessions remain pure and usable so the family can survive financially.
Each of us is experiencing our current plague in a different way. We share the common experience of separation from each other and from our place of worship and community. But some of us are entirely alone, some are co-isolating with family members or friends, and some are on the front lines. Some of us are able to continue working and getting paid, and some suddenly are without income. Some of us are fortunate to be young and healthy, while some are at risk due to age or underlying conditions. Some of us worry about loved ones who have tested positive, some of us have lost people to the disease, and for some it has not yet hit that close to home. Some of us are in a demographic less likely to be heavily impacted by Covid-19, and some of us are in communities being devastated by it.
With these differing experiences, what can we learn in common from Tazria-Metzora? I hope that all of us who are healthy enough can take on the mantle of the priest.
Taking on that mantle can mean checking in on the afflicted with a loving phone call, whether they suffer from the illness itself or from the pains of loneliness. We are fortunate that we have the technology to create virtual community and spiritual space. And we can begin to plan the steps toward eventual return to our physical space.
Taking on that mantle can mean mitigating the financial impact on someone who no longer can work, or the domestic impact on someone who needs groceries and medicines brought to their door. We can finally recognize the critical need to overcome society’s structural inequalities, as they are brought into such stark relief by the unrelenting way this disease disproportionately harms people who are poor, people in communities of color, people in immigrant communities, and people who are homeless—inequalities that lead to our friend, congregant Zach Roe’s husband Padre Angel Marrero, to have officiated at seven funerals in the week…and that was just as of Wednesday, with four in that day alone. We can admit that, despite how foreign and anachronistic Tazria and Metzora may have seemed in the past, we now know first-hand the fear and anxiety of a confusing and threatening disease, and the resulting isolation and loss of community. Perhaps we can begin to learn and respect the delicate balance of living globally, in an integrated world of human, animal and environmental health.