By Rabbi David Levin
At home, socially distanced from the world, the silence is deafening and the sights are
limited to what is accessible by a computer screen.
I am used to running at full speed, constantly assaulted by the noise around me, bombarded by things vying for my attention. And now, I sit home. It is quiet and still. I seek to connect to others, but with physical distancing a requisite to maintain health, I am left to phones, email and, of course, Zoom.
So, like most of us, I mostly get to spend time with myself. It is an interesting opportunity. My work in the field of ethical wills includes a process of reflection, introspection that asks me to examine where I am on my journey. Am I on the right path, or have I strayed and need to refocus, like a ship that has been blown off course by the winds and currents?
This personal assessment is known as a chesbon haNefesh, or an accounting of one’s self. Essentially, whence and where to? Parsha Metzorah is the perfect framework for this process, specifically the bizarre “leprosy of the house” discussed in Leviticus 14:33-57. Its juxtaposition to our current situation is intriguing.
While Metzorah affects the house and everything inside forcing inhabitants to leave their house, COVID-19’s effect is to force everyone inside as a safeguard from the pestilence lurking beyond the walls. We don’t know what it is, but it is serious and potentially life-threatening. Metzorah requires a priest to determine its presence (14:35), and we need a doctor to confirm what may be a virus. COVID-19 requires testing to confirm its presence as people can be asymptomatic.
An interesting Midrash in Leviticus Rabbah (17:2) has a neighbor asking for things and being refused. No, I do not have wheat or barley for you; you cannot borrow anything from me that you may need. Metzorah forces a person to bring all possessions out from the house and put them on display for all to see. Selfishness is punished by this ironic public shaming and humiliation.
I do not believe that whenever something bad happens to us, it is Divine punishment for some bad action. But the irony of secrets locked away being made public rings true as the effects of COVID-19 are unexpectedly similar, an observation made by an insightful friend, Rabbi Brandon Bernstein.
Through the miracle of teleconferencing technology, our new “Zoom-Kultur” yields views inside our homes that we never would have revealed before. Bookcases, pictures, toys strewn on the floor, our kitchens and bedrooms all go on display for whomever we choose to visit, depending on the camera angle and choice of chair.
How remarkably different this is from the carefully curated pictures of food and persona we portray in the other social media before COVID-19. Like the Wizard of Oz, the public face we want to portray is stripped away, the mask comes off (pun intended) and the man behind the curtain is revealed. How curiously both different and similar is this to our experience in Parsha Metzorah and also reminiscent of another dwelling, the sukkah.
When our house, once the shelter from the storm, is afflicted, we are forced out of our safety and comfort. The sukkah, that temporary dwelling of Sukkot, also offers us scant protection. Exposed to the elements and the dark, we are acutely aware of our vulnerability. Out of our home, our senses come alive in ways we might not otherwise imagine metaphorically and literally.
So, too, in this time of COVID-19, we are vulnerable. As we seek shelter in our homes, we know it is only a partial measure of safety, a way to slow the disease, not to stop it. And here, too, our senses are heightened, to try to see in the dark the unseen things, to listen more closely in the quiet with all the external noise tamped down, to touch even the mundane things that might be contaminated, to smell things through a mask guarding the very breath we take. Torah gives us perspective on the world around us, even when it seems strangely different.
Some rabbis have suggested Metzorah never existed. It is a metaphor to heighten awareness of deeper religious and cultural issues. Others claim that Metzorah is a natural phenomenon where the climate of the land in the rainy season and building methods created conditions for mold that would infect houses and food stores. Whether fact or myth, the text offers a special opportunity to reflect on our situation.
This is Torah, the quintessential “People Book” offering profound understanding of the human condition, both the things we understand and those that defy our imagination. Our interaction with emotions, psyche and physical experiences all play out in this amazing inheritance. Even the obtuse and obscure, of which this story can be considered, connect to us and help us to understand ourselves.
At this moment in human history, COVID-19 threatens our personal health and the world as we have come to know it. It is also a unique opportunity. With everything familiar being turned on its head, this is the precise time to examine who we are, creating our own chesbon haNefesh. How do we understand our own needs, interact with others and how do these things intersect in ways that are meaningful and constructive?
Answering these questions help us create meaningful lives and feelings of connectedness that counter the feelings of loneliness and anxiety we might otherwise feel. Each of us will emerge from this experience irrevocably different. How we respond to the existential questions posed will make all the difference in the world. l
Rabbi David Levin is the founder of the Jewish Relationships Initiative and also teaches about reimagination of the ethical will and end-of-life challenges. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.