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The Torah's View of Life during Quarantine

05/14/2020 01:20:47 PM

May14

Rabbi Wendy Pein

During the quarantine, our lives have been turned upside down.  If we are fortunate to have remained healthy (and this qualifier is not to be taken for granted nor preclude us from acknowledging the severity of the pandemic and its’ devastating impact on others), our lives were initially consumed with staying informed about the pandemic, protecting our health and learning how to procure basics such as food without the risk of becoming infected with Covid-19.  We may have also needed to tend to others in our immediate family such as children or elderly relatives.

The quarantine caused us to retreat into our private worlds which at first seemed unnatural – how could we not visit extended family? Friends? Shop in stores?  However, after eight plus weeks of quarantine, our isolation has begun to feel normal.  We have learned, albeit with challenges, to procure basics by navigating the internet.  Digital technology services have enabled us to learn and socialize virtually.  Millions of us are working from home, delighted to be devoid of daily hassles involved in commuting.  If we are fortunate to be healthy and employed, again if, we may have even found  pleasure in this new normal.  Now we finally have time to cook and enjoy mealtimes.  Or pursue a forgotten or long wished for hobby.  We have  slowly grown accustomed to our increased solitude and have discovered there are things we like about it.

Yet the Torah reminds us that individualism and isolation are not the ideal state of being. In Genesis Chapter 2, humankind begins with the creation of a single individual, “the Lord God formed the first person from the dust of the earth…God blew into one’s nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). Next, God creates the Garden of Eden and places humankind in it “to till and tend it” (Genesis 2:15). At this point in this story, there is no mention of companionship nor does Adam request it.  Instead, it is God who states, “it is not good for Adam to be alone… “ (Genesis 2:18).  This judgement comes from God, not humankind.  One can surmise that Adam got used to living alone, having the Garden all to oneself, and started to like it.  So through the Torah, God guides us towards the value of  social interaction, toward deriving enjoyment and value from interacting with others.

The Torah continually reveals timeless wisdom.  The commandments do not typically direct us to do the obvious. There aren’t laws reminding us to fulfill natural instincts such as “You should feed your newborn child.”  Rather, the Torah instructs us to subvert natural inclinations. The Torah reminds us not to be selfish.  The Torah reminds us not to work too hard.  For those of us who are fortunate to remain employed during the quarantine, we are now working harder than ever, reflecting our inclination to produce as much as time allows.  But the Torah instructs us otherwise  - to instead set aside a day of rest on the Sabbath to enjoy life’s pleasures in this world – the wonders and beauty of the world, family, and perhaps even sleep… These are such appropriate and relevant lessons for us during this unnatural and disruptive time.

Within the Book of Leviticus, there is a section called the Holiness code, Leviticus 17 – 27 which instructs us toward holy behavior through our everyday interactions with one another.  Treat one another fairly in business.  Do not rebuke one another.  Remember to help provide for the poor and the stranger.  This section begins with God instructing  Moses to speak to the Israelites and to impart this commandment, “Kedoshim T’hiyu… You shall be holy” (Lev. 19: 1-2).  The "you" is stated in the form of the plural, meaning all of you, the entire Israelite community, thereby revealing that the ideal state to achieve holiness is through community, not individually.  The Torah’s vision is for us to live inter-connectedly, to inspire one another to rise above our inclined behaviors, so that together, we elevate one another.  It is a poignant reminder that individualistic living which has been necessary during this pandemic is not the ideal state for humankind to reach our fullest potential.

Although we may have become habituated to living in isolation, the Torah reminds us about the importance of community.  It instructs us to live in community so that we may inspire one another to live according to higher ethical and moral principles.  Our challenge today is to not become too accustomed to our isolationist living and instead actualize our potential for holiness through community, during this pandemic and eventually, thereafter. 

Sat, July 31 2021 22 Av 5781