The spread of coronavirus around the world is challenging us in many different ways. For the most vulnerable amongst us, it represents a true health risk. Even in the overwhelming majority of us, who in the event that we contract the disease will be okay within a matter of days, its seemingly inexorable spread can provoke anxiety and panic. There is also one aspect of this illness and the reaction it provokes from us that is particularly troubling from a religious perspective; the fact that there may be a time when we cannot be physically present for those most in need.
The CDC recommends that in the event of a coronavirus outbreak, people practice social distancing and limit face to face encounters with others. Yet social distancing is in many ways antithetical to the Torah’s core values.
We read on Shabbat that Amalek did not just attack any segment of the Jewish population, he “surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear; and feared not God.” Chazal wanted to know who these people were who were faint and weary, and straggled behind most of the Jewish people. To answer this question many of the midrashim noted that it is unclear to whom the words “and feared not God” are referring to. Do these words refer to Amalek or to the stragglers themselves? According to a Midrash found in the work Mekhilta d’Rebbe Yishmael, the answer is neither. “Rebbe Elazer HaModai says… that it is Amalek who did not fear God, but others say: This refers to Israel, who (at that time) did not have mitzvot in their hands.” According to the final statement of the midrash, the fact that there were stragglers, people who were left behind, distant and isolated from the community as whole, was not because of anything those individuals had done but rather because of a failure of the Jewish People as a whole. We were lacking in mitzvot and so there were people who were left alone and isolated.
Mitzvot, the midrash is emphasizing, bring us together. The Torah enables us to reveal God’s presence in the world and encourages us to be present for others as well. In fact, it is oftentimes through our presence that we reveal God’s presence. This is the essence of the mitzvot of tefilla b’tzibbur and bikkur cholim. It is why Pirkei Avot tells us that, “If two sit together and speak words of Torah – the Shechinah, God’s presence, is among them”
Yet, the Torah was also aware that there are times when we would not be able to be physically present, when we could not draw close to comfort someone in need. Perhaps the most famous example of this is in the case of a metzora, one who has been afflicted with the skin disease tza’arat. It is important to remember that the Torah does not actually explain why someone gets tza’a’rat, its causes and origins are mysterious. Nevertheless, the metzora must isolate himself behind the borders of the camp until his disease has passed. However, the metzora does not leave the community quietly. The Torah tells us that as he leaves the camp he must cry out “Impure!Impure!”. But why force the metzora to announce his status to the entire world? According to one opinion in the Gemara, the proclamation is said as a warning so that people will know to stay away from the metzora as he makes his way to the edge of the campsite. However, according to the second opinion this proclamation is made for a very different reason. The Gemara says, “He must inform the public of his distress, and the public will pray for mercy on his behalf.”
The metzora must sit alone and no one can be physically present for him. But through recognizing his distress and through prayer, the community can still be present for him. The words of the metzora are both for the community and for himself. They rouse the community to prayer and raise the metzora’s individual suffering to the forefront of the community’s consciousness, while also comforting the metzora. With these words he reassures himself that he will not be forgotten. The metzora is afflicted by a disease that threatens his body and spirit. The community cannot heal him physically, but it can lift his spirit as they make his name and presence the focus of the community’s words in their tefillot.
Around the world and in our community, there are people right now who feel isolated and alone. Some are easy to identify because they are under quarantine, others may have a chronic condition or illness that makes them especially vulnerable, and others may simply feel isolated by their anxiety over all of the unknowns that lie ahead. In all these ways coronavirus is already very much here and affecting us, creating divisions and feelings of loneliness. So now is also the moment when we can begin to heal. Reach out to others, to your friends and acquaintances, particularly to those who are vulnerable or have been directly impacted. Not just in an email or text, but in person if possible or on the phone or Skype. Let them know that you see and hear them even from afar, that you are one way or another present for them.