Rav Bar Oz* (From Strength to Strength)
A Torah Insight for the Coronavirus
by Rabbi Jeremy Barras
The quarantine as a result of the coronavirus coincided with the beginning of this year’s reading of the Book of Leviticus. It seemed to make good sense because just as we were wisely becoming obsessed with handwashing, physical distancing, and self-quarantining, we began to read in the Torah about the value of purity, the sacredness of avoiding impurity, and the importance of vigilance regarding personal hygiene. We internalized these dictums from Leviticus in a new way this year and we marveled at the uncanny confluence of the quarantine and the reading of Leviticus.
As we made our way through the first few Torah portions, we paid particular attention to ideas of purity, quarantining, and self-care. We noticed how fastidious our ancestors were about maintaining purity, and immediately we started to understand (perhaps for the first time) the importance of such instruction. Living through the coronavirus stay-at-home order has been trying and difficult for each of us. Nevertheless, many of us paid keen attention to the Torah’s advice on how to deal with disease, impurity, and the need to remove certain individuals from contact with others.
Those first few portions stressed various mitzvot that focused on a Jew’s relationship with the Divine. It discussed issues of impurity, sacrifices and all of their details, the role of the priesthood and kashrut issues. Each of these commandments were meant to stress to the individual Jew that his/her standing in the world was dependent on how he/she related to the Divine. This seemingly was in line with the polytheistic religions of the other nations in the region. For them religion was based primarily on one’s relationship with their gods. It is precisely after a whole variety of mitzvot between man and G-d are discussed that the Torah arrives at the portion of Kedoshim. Here we see a shift in which the Torah proclaims, v’ahavta l’re’echa comocha, love your neighbor like yourself.
Precisely after the Torah has instructed us so specifically about staying pure before G-d does the Torah come to teach about the importance of maintaining holiness in our relationships with each other. The Torah reminds us with this dictum that Judaism is unique because our relationships with each other are just as important as our relationships with G-d. While we were stuck at home and physically distanced from each other, we learned how precious our relationships with others truly are to us. The coronavirus has affected us in myriad negative ways, but by separating us from each other, it has reminded us how much we need each other. This is the essence of what the heart of Leviticus teaches us–our holiness and our purity is as dependent on our relationships with each other as it is with our relationship with G-d.
* The Barras family name was created during the Ellis Island Experience. Originally it was Bar Oz, meaning strength in Hebrew.