Friday, May 8, 2020

Escaping the Unavoidable? – Raising Ourselves Up From Fear

Parshat Emor

by Rabbi Avi Billet 

As in other very trying times in Jewish history, the Jewish people have always turned to humor as an escape. The humor was never meant to make fun of those suffering directly or indirectly, but as a coping mechanism for Jews to help keep spirits up. There was humor during Czarist Russia, humor during Nazi Germany, humor behind the Iron Curtain, humor during Arab-Israel wars, and there is humor now. Many of us have been sharing memes and jokes. A friend of mine sent me a line “Of all the things I learned in grade school, trying to avoid cooties was the last one I expected to use.” 

The truth is that there is a form of “cooties” in our ancient tradition that is even talked about in our parsha: the concept of being “tamei.” There is much talk in the Torah about “tumah” and “taharah.” In fact, the rules of Kosher and non-Kosher animals is actually defined in these terms (kosher animals are tahor, while the non-Kosher are tamei), as the word “Kosher” (literally: ‘fit to be used’) does not even appear in any of the Torah’s discussions of food rules. 

In very simple terms, tumah is something we try to avoid, and being in a state of tumah is a barrier to participating in some specific holy activities. In particular a Kohen is instructed, even in our times when there is no Beit Hamikdash, to live a life of avoiding certain aspects of tumah, most notably a corpse (the source of the highest & deepest level of tumah). While commanded in our parsha 3400 years ago, until today Kohanim have very limited participation in funerals for this reason! 

In Temple times, the avoidance of even lower levels of tumah might have been accomplished through an early form of social distancing. Like cooties (pardon the comparison), tumah is passed through touch, or in some cases, through coming in contact with something that someone who is tamei may have touched or sat on. Sometimes individuals who are tamei don’t even know of their own tumah – which is why before entering the Temple Courtyard everyone needed to go through the ‘taharah process’ of the Parah Adumah (Red Heifer). 

This is a simplification of what tumah was and is, but I think it is very relevant as a metaphor for what we are seeing today. The easiest way to avoid tumah is to stay home all day, knowing exactly with what and with whom you come in contact. There is limited to no risk of becoming tamei. 

Venturing out, even in a social distance fashion, still has a fairly good score in the avoiding-tumah radar scale. But there is far less guarantee – you don’t know what you will touch, what you might pass, any of which may carry transferable tumah. 

And, once you decide to engage in society in any way, truly all bets are off. One can try to distance and avoid people, but shy of being a recluse and a hermit, once one ventures into society, getting physically close to people (and therefore to known or unknown tumah), sometimes even for a moment, is unavoidable. 

We all have to assume that we are tamei in one form or another. 

We are faced with a world we have never seen before, and a very difficult dilemma that we face in contemplating our future. 

Unlike tumah, which reinvents itself all the time through the concept of death, we have no idea what the future of the novel Coronavirus holds. There are theories of its being sourced from a lab, and theories of it being sourced from an open animal-food market (one wonders if we’ll ever know the real truth). Will it be a one-time thing (with all of its mutations), or will it be around forever? Might it disappear if all its cultures weren’t being preserved? We have no idea. With all the deaths we have seen (which beg the question of whether people died “from” Corona or “with” Corona), as well as the reports that over 90% of the people who get infected experience mild to no symptoms, it’s hard to know whether to be really frightened or to be overwhelmingly optimistic of one’s chances. (Some regions have been overwhelmed by the back-log and it feels like a Churban-like era.) 

Tumah doesn’t carry the threat of death, so the parallel is certainly not the same. And of course, those with comorbid issues certainly need to be cautious of Corona. But as we see numbers go down (and may they continue to go down worldwide!) we have to ask ourselves what life is about. What are we living for? 

Those who are afraid will likely not venture out. “We want to live!” 

Those who are unafraid will venture out! “We too want to live!” 

If we had a crystal ball to tell us what our society will look like when this is over (or even better – an exact date for when this will be over), it would be easy. Many of us would happily give up a few more months of isolation in exchange for a Corona-free world. 

But this could drag on for a lot longer, as long as a reasonably priced successful treatment is denied to the public. And then what? 

What is the purpose of a life of isolation? Are our days boring? Do we have something to look forward to each day? Some of us are walking, biking, getting outside on a regular basis. Many of us are davening daily, some alone, some with a group online. Some of us are reading novel after novel, article after article, book after book. Some of us are learning Torah – a lot of Torah. And some of us are in front of a computer or television screen much of the day, watching videos and shows, trying to keep ourselves entertained. 

Life has meaning if we find meaning. Life has meaning if we make it meaningful. 

Just like we can’t live a life hiding from tumah, living a life guided by a principle of “forever isolating from Corona” will eventually lead to a different kind of death. A death from boredom, a death of the spirit of life, a death of the soul. O – we might be alive and breathing, but will we have anything to say to justify our choices in our day-to-day existence, when we are faced with difficult questions posed to us by a higher power? 

Many of us were born into this Jewish life. Most of us made a choice to stay in it. Now we are faced with a tremendous opportunity to go beyond rote and ritual, and tap into our souls, perhaps in a manner we never really gave ourselves time to explore. 

Has our davening in isolation changed and improved? Has our connection to God grown in this time? Have we undertaken Torah-study projects we never gave ourselves time for? Have we read through all of Tehillim yet, studied a new book of the Tanach, made a siyum on mishnayos, ventured into a world of Talmud, listened to a shiur (or more!) online? Have we read interesting and challenging articles from (this one was very thought provoking: or opened the seforimblog ( or other similar websites? 

Like everyone else, I wish for life to return to normal. But in the meantime, as long as we ARE healthy and can do meaningful things, we must make the choice to raise our spirit up, as we rise to our own individual challenges of taking things to a higher level. 

If we had our druthers we’d try to avoid tumah like the plague. But sometimes we also see that there’s nowhere to go to run from it. So life must be faced head-on. We can utilize precaution, but not every precaution is fool-proof or even wise. Some become counterproductive, contributing to depression and despair, or avoiding addressing other medical issues, which is also a threat to health and personal wellbeing. 

We should be blessed to pick up the pieces of life soon, with a return to relative normalcy. More than anything, we should be blessed to overcome the fear that is paralyzing us, and holding us back from achieving amazing things.

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