The Power of Isolation (Tazria-M’tzorah, 24th April 2020) Apr 25, 2020 3:04:55 GMT
Post by Rabbi Neil on Apr 25, 2020 3:04:55 GMT
“The person who carries the tzara’at disease, his garments shall be torn, his head shall be left bare and he shall cover his upper lip and he shall call out “Unclean, unclean!” He shall be unclean as long as the disease is on him. Being unclean, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Lev. 13:45-46) These words from this week’s double Torah portion, Tazria-M’tzorah, resonate very strongly today. Clearly, Torah understood airborne contagion to ensure that the m’tzorah (often very badly translated as leper) needed to cover their mouth to protect others. Torah understood the need for isolation to avoid the spread of any form of contagion by touch. Torah focuses on the camp, how an infected individual should be removed from the camp and what steps are necessary to help them return to the camp and to mainstream society. That process of return to normalcy includes a thorough medical examination, by the way. No-one is allowed back into the camp while there is a risk that they might infect others. Since Torah’s focus is on the camp, though, and not on the person, it doesn’t ever say what one should do while isolated. This isn’t just an omission in this Torah portion, it’s elsewhere, too. For example, in Numbers 12 when Miriam is isolated due to being stricken with the same disease, Torah just says “So Miriam was shut out of the camp for seven days, so the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted” (Nu. 12:15). But what was she, or anyone, meant to do for those seven days? Is there a process that the person should go through, or is it simply a waiting game? Torah seems to imply the latter – that they just have to wait out their contagion. From this period of isolation that we are all experiencing, however, I would like to suggest the former, and that there is a process that we need to go through during our isolation. I’m no psychologist, though, so I would very much appreciate members, especially those who work in mental health, giving feedback online to this sermon so that we can help create a larger communal response.
It seems to me that there are three stages of isolation – shock, acceptance and return. Shock is the realization in Torah that you have tzara’at and that you need to be separated. For us, it was the realization that to stop the spread of this virus, all of us would have to be separate, whether we had it or not, for far longer than just seven days. That shock led to stores emptying and an immediate restructuring of life. Panic spread across the country, unfounded fears of rampant crime and the break-down of society developed. People started to lose their jobs and quickly struggled to get food on the table. Some people and organizations were able to adapt to the shock creatively but it quickly became clear how much that creativity was dependent on finances. Part of the shock that we experienced as our society adapted was the shock of the realization of the depth of financial inequality in this country. It was something we have all known about for a long time, but now there was a different sense. We were shocked by this country’s failings.
The second stage of isolation is acceptance. Just as a bereaved partner slowly comes to accept that their partner has gone forever, so we have to accept that life before this virus is gone. That may change if and when a vaccine is discovered, but that may not be the case. Acceptance of the here and now is necessary for the third step, Return, which I’ll come to shortly. How do we accept the now, how do we use the now? For some, this is a period of increased productivity in which tasks long put-off are finally addressed. House repairs, learning that skill you always wanted to learn, reading that book you always wanted to read, those are productive ways to accept the reality of now. But another way is to refrain from that – to use now as an opportunity to slow down, to be, not to be rushed into anything, to rest, to recharge. That’s also a really healthy response. With that in mind, I want to share that the Chasidic masters talked of Hitbodedut – being alone with God. It’s a wonderful concept because it takes prayer away from the demand of the set prayer services and makes it something more personal. Perhaps part of acceptance of the reality of now is the development of some kind of personal practice of Hitbodedut. In this spiritual practice, we pray in our own language, using our own words, in our own place, in our own time. Such a concept of prayer was alien to most Jews at the time, remember who were so set in the daily routine that they couldn’t conceive prayer outside of that routine. Hitbodedut is an honest acceptance of the reality of now. Yes, hundreds of people join us each week for our prayer services, but we all know that as wonderful as it is to gather together online, something is missing from these services, a certain spontaneous kavannah or prayer that is normally generated from our being together. Maybe one way for us to respond to that change in kavannah is to generate our own individual prayer practice to complement these services. That is where Hitbodedut comes in. Hitbodedut isn’t a new activity to add to the calendar, it isn’t something else to add to our lives, it’s not another burden - it’s a moment out, a moment of peace, of reflection…. in short, of prayer. It’s ensuring that each week we spend a moment being really true to ourselves, expressing the honest prayer that is generated not from our evolving tradition, but from our own heart.
I acknowledge that that prayer might be difficult. It might be painful. It might speak of loneliness in a way it would not have spoken before. For the first time, the veil of loneliness and isolation has been lifted and we, the community who in the past have continued on our journey with only occasional check-ins to the lonely and isolated now experience what they have experienced all along. That’s where the Return stage of isolation becomes essential, especially for our community. If we are honest with ourselves now, we will be best prepared to return to the camp later. If we have not changed at all, like the m’tzorah, we will not be able to return. Different to the Torah, though, before we return we will ask questions not just of ourselves but also of our community. The communal need for individual isolation must be met with a communal response to individual isolation. We have always tried to respond to that at Temple Beth Shalom, but now it has become clear that there is much more that we can, and will, do, to respond to the isolation of our members. Despite the story of Torah, the story of our community is not the story that continues regardless of those separated outside the camp. Their story is part of our story.
This Shabbat and this week, may our individual story of isolation and separation be an honest one. May we find space to speak that story out loud. May we find support when we need it. May our story move from shock to acceptance to return, and may we all look forward to a day when we gather together and tell our story together. May such be the Divine will, and let us say, Amen.