By this stage in quarantine, you have probably broken down, cried, experimented with an unusual haircut, argued with your partner or room mate, attempted to pick up a new skill, laughed, watched a movie, read all the Corona-related news items, avoided reading all the Corona-related news items, lost your mind, twice, and finally accepted the new reality. Now, it’s time to have breakfast and go through the whole process all over again.
It’s hard to put into words what is happening for us in lockdown right now. Whenever I talk to friends or family about how they’re experiencing this unprecedented life event, we revert to discussing the latest rules or the political ramifications or what they understand of the emerging medical news. We can only really sum up how we’re dealing with the situation in odd phrases, like “getting by”, “finding new meanings”, “struggling” or, “drinking before midday.”
That’s probably why I have trouble finding out what quarantine was like for our ancient ancestors. This week’s parashah is Tazria-Metzora. It is the Torah reading about quarantine. Rabbis rejoice! For so long the processes and rituals around self-isolating for infectious diseases seemed so irrelevant to our lives. Suddenly a pandemic comes along and we can join the ranks of overnight experts with a niche specialism in ancient Israel.
Except, strangely, Leviticus doesn’t really tell me what I want to know. It describes in graphic detail the infectious skin disease our forebearers were trying to prevent – called tzara’at, it resulted in white flaky peeling of the skin and made its sufferers look like the walking dead. It would start as a small patch and gradually expand across the body.1
It also tells me exactly how the priests would deal with it. Anybody with the affliction would have to isolate themselves outside of the camp for 7 days. At the end of these, a priest would come out to inspect the patient. If the patient had been healed, the priest would make ritual offerings of birds to spiritually cleanse him.2 They would be shaved, washed and then readmitted to the community.3 If not, back into quarantine he would go.
Yet for all this detail spread out over chapters of the Torah, it doesn’t answer the question I really want to ask: what were their lives like? How did it feel to have the scaly skin disease in ancient Israel? What did they do when they were isolated from their communities? The Torah provides scarce little information about these questions, and biblical scholars seem surprisingly unconcerned. In fact, the main trend among academics has been to question how much we can even know about the biblical world, shedding great doubt on the texts that have reached us.4
We are told that the isolators were kept outside the camp, or outside the city walls. I wonder whether they had dedicated centres. The harsh desert sun of the Negev must have made simply staying outside longterm impossible. I wonder how they got food. Did people deliver it to them in designated places? Were they expected to scavenge for themselves?
All I can gather from the text is how people were managed, punished, ritualised and redeemed. I cannot work out how the ancient people keep themselves entertained when they had no access to other human beings, nor to Netflix, WiFi, or books to read. I do not know how they loved, supported each other, struggled, found things difficult and ultimately survived. Those positive stories of endurance are hidden between the lines of the text. I do not know how they felt.
But, in this community, I don’t need to just wonder how people feel and how they are managing. Our welfare committee has done an incredible job of checking in on everyone. Our healthy members are going out of their way to ensure that the others get the food and supplies they need. I know that, across this community, people are checking in on each other to find out how they are. This community should be an inspiration to others across the country.
Much is made in the media about people’s acts of selfishness and inconsideration, but for my part I have only seen the reverse. I have been overwhelmed by the kindness of people reaching out to share in feelings, offering support with shopping and errands, and generally being as supportive as they can in these exceptional times.
When our biblical forbearers wrote about quarantine, they wrote about its rituals. When the scholars wrote about it, they took interest in its medical diagnoses. When the media write about it, they write about everything that goes wrong. These stories of rituals, rules and wrongdoing might make for compelling reading, but they don’t reflect people’s lived reality.
Meanwhile, we are quietly writing a different story through our deeds. We are writing stories of generosity, kindness and self-sacrifice. We are showing every day in little ways how much we care about ourselves, each other and our communities.
One of the surprising facts about crises is that they do not engender selfishness, but altruism. At the time of the last financial crash, I was working in the charity sector, and we were all perplexed when we discovered that, in times of economic hardship, poorer people’s charitable donations went up. This week, a German science journal reported on a significant uptick in people’s compassion in their attitude to others since the crisis began. We see the results of that: thousands of people volunteering for mutual aid groups and the NHS supporters. The more people struggle, the more they care about the struggles of others.
Priests and politicians may want to write one kind of story, but ordinary people write much better ones. May we continue to write those stories, and may they be the ones we pass on to later generations.
I delivered this sermon over Zoom on 25th April 2020 for Three Counties Liberal Judaism.
1Milgrom on Leviticus 1-16, pp. 816-824
4Watts, Ritual and Rhetoric, pp. 27-32