By Rabbi Gregory S. Marx
Anxiety is creeping into the hearts of Americans.
In a recent conversation I had with a member of my congregation about going out to a restaurant, having recently received her second vaccine, she commented, “I feel like I am becoming agoraphobic.“ She lamented that as she was standing outside the front of her house and a UPS driver leaned out of his truck to wave hello and she jumped back in horror.
“I never would have done that before COVID,” she said.
She recognized that she is becoming increasingly anxious about returning to life and doing something as simple and common as going out to a restaurant. What can she do, she asked me, now that the plague seems to be subsiding, at least to some degree?
One of the side effects of COVID-19 is this new phenomena that I can only call “COVID re-entry anxiety.” Can we go out with other people and be unmasked if everyone is vaccinated? Can we socialize at a restaurant, go on a plane, take a vacation and truly relax if we are with other people?
I am one always to trust the medical professionals but I am seeing tremendous confusion, conflicting messages and an ever-growing fear about what life is going to look like when we leave our “bunker”-like homes.
Our Torah gives us a clue on how to deal with this anxiety. It is rooted in the order of the Torah itself. In the previous parshah, Achrei Mot, we learn that Aaron, Moses’ brother, suffered a terrible loss. His two sons, Nadav and Abihu were killed in a calamitous act of God. We learn in Leviticus 10:1, “They took, sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu put in their fire pans a fire; they placed on it incense; they brought before God a strange (fire), that God did not command of them. The fire went out from before God, and consumed them; they died before God.”
Following this tragedy, we transition to our Torah portion of this week, Kedoshim, which means holiness. Kedoshim, of course, gives us the blueprint for living a life of sanctity. We learn about reverence for our parents and building a community; we are to eat the sacrifice only on the first or second day, necessitating a group of people with whom to eat.
We are to share our abundance with the less fortunate, refrain from theft, deception and deceit. “You shall not swear falsely by My name, profaning the name of God.” And of course, we are called upon to “Love our neighbor as ourselves.” Subtly, our text is telling us how to rise up from disaster and death.
Moses joined with Aaron in our portion to support each other and the people by offering a path out of the darkness. Work to bring holiness into the world. Endeavor to “look up,” even as life sometimes forces us to peer downward. By offering a spiritual path to holiness, Moses and his brother taught us that we can either live in the past and the suffering of it, or we can move forward with a renewed purpose and mission. We can either let the past destroy our future, or we can imagine a world where our brighter future allows us to move beyond the pain of the past. Aaron and Moses moved forward and found holiness even after tragedy.
We must, following the death of more than 500,000 Americans, mourn our loss, but then “put one foot in front of the other.” We must focus on the tasks in front of us. We might see going out for dinner or speaking to another person in the grocery store as a common, or meaningless act, but in light of the past year, it is a holy act. It is a courageous act. It propels us out of the pain of yesterday, empowering us to normalize our lives again.
All of the rituals and ethical laws of Kedoshim can only be fulfilled in community. We cannot find holiness alone. We must get out, live our lives and embrace our time with one another. We must keep safety at the forefront, but let us not be paralyzed by our fears; rather, let us go forth and find Kedoshim, holiness.
Rabbi Gregory S. Marx serves as the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. 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.