There was something deeply paradoxical about the way we, as a world, experienced the COVID-19 pandemic. On the one hand, we experienced (and some continue to endure) a traumatic disconnect – a physical and emotional chasm – between the confines of home and the spaces we had shared just months previous to the outbreak. And yet, so much of humanity connected online, in some ways more closely linked than ever as communities, as a society, perhaps even as a world.
As the pandemic continues to recede (for some painfully slow and for others far too rapidly), it helps to remember the ever-expanding set of questions that confronted us through the long years of COVID: Which mask was best? How long would the virus linger on surfaces? Who could we turn to for the newest and most accurate information? Which members of our community were most vulnerable? How could we best protect ourselves and our loved ones? (More recent questions include: How are we called to acknowledge and support the ongoing hardships faced by our elders and those immunosuppressed in our communities? What remote accessibilities did we innovate out of necessity that we must retain, if we are to both authentically and more effectively connect with others?)
The double Parasha of Tazria-Metzora provides a helpful frame. Whereas today we turn to medical professionals to address bodily concerns and questions, during the days of the Torah it was the Kohanim, Priests, who guided us in such complicated matters.
One such issue was assessing cases of tzara’at, often incorrectly translated as leprosy, more accurately understood as a spiritual ailment that manifested on patches of skin, clothing, vessels or walls. When one was afflicted with something that could be tzara’at, the priest would examine the individual and send them into seclusion outside the camp if they were a “presumptive positive.” Strikingly, the entire tribe would wait for the individual to emerge from quarantine before moving on to the next encampment.
The deepest lesson of Tazria-Metzora translated immediately into the early days and months of the pandemic: sometimes standing together means standing physically apart. Personal vulnerability is a universal truth. It’s just that, ordinarily, we take turns. During the pandemic, we chose digital interconnectivity as a bridge across vast expanses (sometimes the distance was as nearby as a neighborhood and as removed as a far-away continent – often simultaneously). This was embodied community-building. Together, we transcended limitations as each of us learned to traverse the unknown. In other words, the entire camp paused.
Speaking on tzara’at (though he could just as easily have been addressing COVID-19), Rabbi Shai Held wrote:
Those who are unafflicted may be tempted to look down on those who are. To see those whose illness is suggestive of death as less than fully human, and thus unworthy of their compassion. So the rabbinic interpretation of Torah reminds us that the ill are no less human than the well. To be asked to pray for someone is to be charged with affirming their humanity totally and unconditionally, and with cultivating empathy for them.
The Torah’s sensitivity to human vulnerability is a model in solidarity – whether we are speaking about the concerns of biological diseases like COVID-19 or confronting the harm caused by spiritual diseases like structural racism, transphobia, xenophobia, antisemitism, or hatred of any kind. Further, the Torah’s wisdom regarding tzara’at teaches us that physical conditions must also been understood as spiritual concerns. Praying for my neighbor requires learning what affects my neighbor, even and especially when I can once again choose to walk away. Perhaps the isolation began far before its effects were global. Perhaps the mandate in this post-COVID world is to remember what we learned.
The biblical text teaches that we can – we must – learn to address our own spiritual and physical realities, especially when we remember that we are all – and must remain – one camp.