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Poles of the Pandemic – Tazria-Metzora 5781

An interesting thing happened in Israel last week. No, not the ongoing saga of who will lead the country, which political parties will form a governing coalition in the wake of the fourth national election in two years, and the most inconclusive of all of them. That is interesting, but it’s dragging along, and quite frustrating for all observers of Israeli politics, and of course Israeli citizens.

Rather, this week included the annual days of mourning and celebration that are right next to each other: Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s memorial day for fallen soldiers, and Yom HaAtzma’ut, the day commemorating the State’s 73 years of independence. Yom HaZikaron is a somber day, with public ceremonies during which Israelis remember their family members and friends and colleagues and army comrades who gave their lives to build and protect their nation; the air raid siren sounds throughout the nation for two individual minutes, and all Israelis stop what they are doing to recall those who are gone. Yom HaAtzma’ut is a happy day, a day of barbecues and musical performances and giant, silly, blue-and-white inflatable plastic hammers. And since Yom HaAtzma’ut immediately follows Yom HaZikaron, the difference between the two days is stark, and one can actually feel the mood change as the sun sets on Yom HaZikaron, separating grief and remembrance from celebration and joy and national pride.

One of the challenges of reading Tazria-Metzora every year when they come around (and all the more so in years when we read them separately, so that we get two weeks of reading about skin diseases), is what to say about this. The rabbis just could not accept that the Torah should really be taken at face value here, but rather that the image of infectious affliction of the skin must be allegorical. 

The Torah is otherwise terse. In many places it says so much with so little; in this case, the Torah seems to say so little of apparent relevance to us today with so much material. There are many such attempts to reinterpret the nega of tzara’at; perhaps the best-known was cited by Sylvia earlier in her devar Torah.

The Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Noah Berezovsky, a 20th-century Hasidic rabbi, in his take on Metzora, points to Sefer Yetzirah, a proto-kabbalistic text, for guidance. Sefer Yetzirah observes that the Hebrew word נגע / nega, affliction or disease, which appears many times in Tazria and Metzora (e.g. Lev. 14:32: זֹ֣את תּוֹרַ֔ת אֲשֶׁר־בּ֖וֹ נֶ֣גַע צָרָ֑עַת), is an inversion of the word ענג / oneg, meaning enjoyment. 

Oneg is an expression of joy in engaging with our tradition (think “oneg Shabbat”), while nega is the exact opposite – a deficiency of engagement that is so weighty as to be a physical affliction. The Slonimer Rebbe extrapolates this further to say that investing ourselves in Jewish tradition – tefillah / prayer, Shabbat, kashrut, holidays and so forth, include the two components of (quoting the words from Psalm 34, which we sang earlier in today’s service) sur mera va’aseh tov. Repudiate evil and perform good deeds. We need both of those things to achieve oneg, enjoyment, and of course to avoid nega, affliction.

One of the things that the pandemic has done is to lay bare the stark difference between the oneg of our lives and the nega, the enjoyment and the affliction. We do not have to dig too deeply to come up with examples of how our lives have changed for better and for worse, and sometimes those things are right next to each other.

Some of us have improved ourselves and our world in this time. I would say that I have seen a greater effort on the part of many of us to perform charitable acts for others: to help out those who were homebound in this time, to reach out to friends in need, to be there as a comforting presence, even from a distance, to those who have suffered, to those who grieve lost loved ones, to those who have lost their livelihoods. 

I was thinking about this when a heartwarming story floated across my desk about the largely white Fiji fraternity at Louisiana State University, 90 of whose alumni raised over $50,000 to pay off the mortgage of their longtime cook, a 74-year-old Black woman named Jessie Hamilton, who had been working two other jobs to make ends meet. This is a dramatic act of tzedaqah, but I suppose that one reason this made the news (including the New York Times) is that we are all so much more appreciative right now of such acts of generosity, in the wake of so much loss and grief.

Certainly many of us have become newly aware of the struggle for racial justice in America. While recent events suggest that there is still a long, hard road ahead of us in this regard, to guarantee the safety and education and equal treatment under the law for all of our citizens, nonetheless our public consciousness suggests that we now at least have the potential to move in the right direction.

It seems to me that many of us have also used this time of isolation to improve ourselves personally. I know that I have spent much more time making sure that I get enough exercise by taking regular walks in Frick Park (and I have seen many of my neighbors doing the same, even throughout the winter), and I have been cooking more (I make sourdough bread and fresh pasta regularly now), and I have also spent some time learning to play the banjo, something I hope to inflict on all of you soon enough. And I am sure that many of you have also engaged in similar pursuits.

So there is the oneg, the enjoyment. But we all know what the flip side of this is. We have plenty of nega / affliction to go around right now as well. 

Some of those contemporary afflictions are the plague of misinformation, and the bad actors who are willing to put any falsehood out there via Internet, and the platforms that care only about their bottom line, with no sense of responsibility for how the spreading of misinformation is actually killing people. (By the way, whatever you may think of his method and brand of humor, the English-Jewish actor Sacha Baron Cohen has used his fame to call attention to the very real danger that Facebook, Twitter, et al have caused.)

And we cannot forget, of course, the lies told by public figures that led to the violent insurrection in Washington on January 6th. Our democracy has held, but the cost in lives lost and the invigoration of white nationalist groups that helped foment this attack is truly chilling. 

And of course we probably know this anecdotally, but the emotional distress caused by isolation in this past year is great. It is likely that rates of depression, anxiety, domestic abuse and other social ills are much higher. CDC data released this week showed that overdose deaths from opioid abuse have jumped dramatically in the past year.

These are certainly variants of the nega, the affliction that the Torah goes on and on about in today’s parashah. We are greatly afflicted, and not only due to the loss of over 560,000 lives. We are greatly afflicted, even as some of us have found some oneg, some enjoyment. The oneg and the nega are proximate.

We are hopeful, of course, that we will see an end to this soon. And we certainly will, if we can get as many people vaccinated as possible as quickly as possibly. (Vaccine appointments are very easy to come by now. If you have not received a shot, you should push everything out of the way to do that now.)

And what comes next, of course, will depend on how thoughtful we are about the near future. Given the oneg and the nega of the past year and change, we should not lose out on the opportunity to move forward in a way that, shall we say, accentuates the oneg in our lives.

Sur mera va’aseh tov, says the Psalm. Repudiate evil and do good. As we begin to inch forward slowly into gathering at this time, we should keep the following principles before us:

  1. Sur mera. Repudiate evil. We have to continue to keep each other safe through masking / social distancing, until such times as our public health authorities say that it is OK to let our guard down. The sooner we get our transmission rates down low, the sooner this will all be over. And that means, by the way, that if we know people who are on the fence about vaccination, we should reach out to them in love, and maybe even drive them to get a shot.
  2. Aseh tov. Do good. We should continue to seek ways to improve ourselves, our lives, and our world, and while of course there are many such ways of doing this, I personally recommend considering the many traditional ways of Jewish living: setting aside Shabbat as a holy day of rest and oneg, eating mindfully, engaging with words of Torah, expressing our gratitude to the Qadosh Barukh Hu, and of course raising the bar in terms of our tzedaqah and hesed, our charity and acts of lovingkindness. 

It is through these things that we can lean into the oneg, the enjoyment, and keep away the nega, even as they bump up against one another.  

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 4/17/21.)

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A Plague of Misinformation – Tazria-Metzora 5780

One of the key principles in Jewish life is that words have power. That is why we recite certain sets of liturgy three times every day. That is why the Torah itself urges us to recite the Shema before going to sleep and when we wake up in the morning. That is why the pre-eminent mitzvah in Jewish life is Talmud Torah, the study of the words of Torah. And that mitzvah does not just mean “study,” as in, read them and/or commit them to memory. Talmud Torah is about elevating the words of the Jewish bookshelf by interpreting, re-interpreting, disagreeing and yes, even arguing about the meaning of our ancient texts, and of course applying them to our lives.  Everything is under scrutiny; slight nuances of individual words, or even single letters or vowels, can lead us to different interpretations. And that is really the essential holy act of Judaism.

That is why, as you have definitely heard me say before, we are still here: because we have been using our words – living them and revisiting them again and again – for literally thousands of years.

And it is this essential devotion to words – written, printed, spoken, and so forth – that makes us understand all the more so the essential value of using words with care.

Just a few examples of ways through which we demonstrate on a regular basis the high stakes with respect to the use of words: 

  1. Whoever leads services in a Jewish context, a sheliah tzibbur (literally, “emissary of the community”) must be skilled at pronouncing the words of tefillah / prayer correctly. The one who mispronounces words, whether accidentally or deliberately, should be replaced.
  2. Whenever we read from the Torah, there are two people standing on either side of the reader to correct her or him in the event of a mispronunciation that changes the meaning of the word.
  3. We have in our tradition strict halakhah / law about what is acceptable vs. unacceptable speech. Just a few examples:
    1. Lashon hara. “The evil tongue.” We are forbidden, according to Vayikra / Leviticus 19:16, which read in Parashat Qedoshim next week, from being rekhilim, people who tell tales about one another, whether true or false.
    2. Nibbul peh. “Lewdness of the mouth.” The Talmud (Yerushalmi Terumot 1:6) tells us that the use of foul language is prohibited. The words that come out of our mouth should be as pure as the food that we put in.
    3. Motzi shem ra. Slander. Our bar mitzvah mentioned this earlier in his devar Torah. A subset of gossip, this is the spreading of malicious falsehoods.
  4. We have an obligation to speak the truth, for example from Shemot / Exodus 23:7: מדבר שקר תרחק / Midevar sheqer tirhaq. Distance yourself from falsehood. 

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, a rabbi from Belarus who lived in the 19th and early 20th century, is best known for the name of the book he wrote about lashon hara, called “Hafetz Hayyim.” The title is a reference to a line that we sang earlier this morning in Pesuqei DeZimra, from Psalm 34:13-14:

מִֽי־הָ֭אִישׁ הֶחָפֵ֣ץ חַיִּ֑ים אֹהֵ֥ב יָ֝מִ֗ים לִרְא֥וֹת טֽוֹב׃ נְצֹ֣ר לְשׁוֹנְךָ֣ מֵרָ֑ע וּ֝שְׂפָתֶ֗יךָ מִדַּבֵּ֥ר מִרְמָֽה׃

Who is the person who desires life, who desires years of good fortune? Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech.

If we truly desire life, says Rabbi Kagan, we will guard our tongues, and not spread falsehoods.

According to our tradition, we have a tremendous responsibility to make sure that our words reflect the qedushah, the holiness to which we aspire in all of our relationships. To do so reflects an honest desire to pursue life. Those that lie cause pain, suffering, and death.

And all of this is why the current moment is just so disturbing to me.

Let’s face it. We are all really, really anxious right now. Some of us are going a bit stir crazy, stuck in our homes, with few options for getting out of the house, other than to take a walk or go food shopping, the latter of which, in my experience, only causes more anxiety. (Nothing wrong with taking walks, of course; those of us who have dogs know that the dogs are clearly grateful for our presence around the house to take them for lots of walks.)

And aside from being cooped up in the house, everybody is anxious about the state of the world. As we watch the numbers of people with confirmed infections rise, and with them the number of people hospitalized, and those who die from the disease, we are all wondering: When will we see the peak? Will there be a second wave? What about all the people who have lost their jobs, their source of income? And perhaps most heartbreakingly, When can we resume our lives or reclaim some semblance of normalcy?

I, of course, have no answers to these questions, or even educated guesses. I certainly wish I did, but epidemiology was not included in my rabbinical school curriculum. Perhaps the closest approach I have to any knowledge of the spread of infectious diseases comes from the parashah that we read today, Tazria-Metzora, which of course describes the spread of an infectious disease, and frankly, it’s not so helpful (even though it does speak of regular testing and quarantine).

That disease, called in Hebrew tzara’at, has often historically been translated as “leprosy,” although I am told that anybody who knows anything about leprosy knows that the disease described in this part of Vayiqra / Leviticus cannot be leprosy, based on its description.

Nonetheless, there is an essential message here, related not to epidemiology but about a public health issue of another sort: that of misinformation.

You probably know what I’m talking about. There are many people spreading misinformation. Whether through malicious intent, or because they might be able to profit off people’s gullibility, or because they just do not know any better, repeating outright lies on social media is a transgression of the highest order. A few of the kinds of things that you might find out there are (a more extensive list of these things, courtesy of Ryerson University Ted Rogers School of Management Social Media Lab, is found here):

  • Promoting fake tests or cures. As of right now, there is no cure. Do not believe anything that presents as such.
  • Speculation on the origin. The virus was not created in a lab by some country to use as a weapon.
  • Dismissing the severity of the virus. Clearly a political move that comes from the honest desire that many of us have to see our businesses reopened and our jobs returned as soon as possible.
  • Racial, religious, or ethnicity-baiting. Perhaps the most tragic, because it demonstrates how easily many of us fall into blaming others for our situation. This type of malicious falsehood appeals to our basest fears.

And there are more. Ladies and gentlemen, this stuff is dangerous. Lies kill, just like some viruses do.

Unfortunately, one piece of news out there related to COVID-19 is that at a few of the anti-government protests intended to end state shutdowns, there were people displaying openly anti-Semtic signs. One, at a protest in Ohio, featured a cartoon of a blue rat with a Jewish star and a kippah on its head, flanked above and below by blue stripes similar to those on the Israeli flag, with the caption, “The Real Plague.”

Straight-up anti-Semitism aside, the danger here is simple: any kind of information that misleads people, whether intentional or unintentional, has the potential to cause more people to die. There has been dangerous misinformation about the malaria treatment, hydroxychloroquine, which in preliminary studies has not shown any effectiveness in curing people of the virus. The FDA on Friday (April 24th) issued a warning that this drug may cause heart arrhythmia in people with COVID-19.

And this should go without saying, but of course taking disinfectants internally is dangerous and ineffective. (And it’s just a little ridiculous that the company who manufactures Lysol had to issue a public statement to that effect.)

Part of the challenge here is the ease with which we can spread falsehoods today. While it used to be that you needed a printing press to promote misinformation, today anybody with a smartphone can put out lies to the entire world with a few finger taps. 

And that, in my mind, simply elevates the reasons that Jews have always been so invested in our words. Words can give life, as we have seen here today. But they can also, in fact, kill. 

And social media, when misused by anybody to promote misinformation, can kill as well. 

Hevreh, we have a responsibility right now, more than ever, to the truth – to scientific inquiry, to actual medical knowledge, to responsible, sober advice from people that actually know something. Drawing on Jewish tradition, please be discerning regarding what you post/repost. If you read something on Facebook or wherever that sounds like a cure, perhaps you should check it out before spreading it. Because, like the guy with the feather pillows, once it is out there, it cannot be taken back.

We who desire life must commit over and over to highlighting the importance of truth. And right now, anything less than truth can kill. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 4/25/2020.)