Since the CDC recommended wearing cloth masks, their use has become a contentious fault line in American politics and culture. Experts suggest that wearing masks can slow the transmission of the coronavirus. It is widely believed that wearing a cloth mask affords little protection to the wearer but can help protect those around them. Despite this evidence, people have reacted to the advice regarding masks in widely divergent ways. It is not uncommon to see people walking down a quiet street, far removed from any other pedestrians, with a mask firmly in place as if it were a shield against an invisible enemy, while others refuse to wear masks even when in locations where social distancing is all but impossible. The disparate reactions of the “always maskers” and the “never maskers” seem to embody two strikingly different perspectives about the threat of the coronavirus.
The Torah too was concerned about the spread of an invisible force, not a virus, but tumah, impurity. Tumah is associated with a number of different states, but the most severe and potent form of tumah is tumat met, that of a human corpse. Tumat met is not only transmitted by coming into contact with a dead body, but even by being under the same roof or within several feet of a corpse. Despite the emphasis that the Torah places on caring for the deceased, the kohanim, the priests, were specifically warned to be careful to avoid tumat met. “None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin, except for the relatives that are closest to him…” Furthermore, once one has absorbed tumat met, they can not simply become pure again by going to the mikvah as one can with other forms of tumah. Instead, they must undergo the enigmatic ritual of the parah adumah, in which they are sprinkled with the ashes of a red heifer. But why does the Torah treat tumat met in such a different manner from other forms of tumah?
Rav Soloveitchik writes, “It [tumat met] is the expression of human anxiety and terror…Tumat met is the result of the traumatic experience that dislocates man’s self, I-awareness and existential security. Death lurks in the shadows. Death defeats everyone, great or small, clever or simple.” A human death reminds us of our own fragility. This feeling is contagious and tumat met is the terrible embodiment of the knowledge that we too are vulnerable, and that we too will die. It is for this reason that the kohanim, who represent eternality and God’s protective presence, are commanded to stay far away from it. Tumat met is antithetical to these ideals.
Like tumat met, the vast uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus has deeply shaken our sense of security. Although most of those infected with the virus recover, its terrible toll has forced us to confront our own ephemerality. Faced with this uncomfortable realization, some people choose to deny it. One can deny it either by pretending it can be staved off like the “always maskers”, or by denying the threat exists at all as do the “never maskers”. These seemingly disparate groups are actually engaged in the same effort, the denial of their own inescapable vulnerability. However, the Torah’s treatment of tumat met reminds us that fear and anxiety can never be fully repressed, instead they must be managed.
Upon the death of a close relative everyone, even a kohen, must give themselves over to tumat met. To stand apart and pretend they are unaffected by the loss of their loved one would be to deny their innate human emotions. But this state should not last forever. A kohen should undergo the purification ritual of parah adumah so that he can once again serve God and the community through the worship that took place in the Mishkan. Ultimately, the laws of tumat met remind us that we must neither deny our anxiety nor allow it to overtake us. It is only when we can acknowledge and channel our emotions that we will be able to live lives of holiness and service to the community.