May the Holy Blessed One bring a swift end to this virus and bring healing to us all soon.
This year, we read Parshat Emor from inside our homes. Forced by social distancing to remain in place, we find ourselves experiencing a rare phenomenon, at least for us Americans: We are all going through this together, with little respect for our social, psychological or physical differences. Yes, our more vulnerable populations are suffering more. Yet we are all equally subject to this sickness, which is why we are all observing the same health guidelines to curb its spread.
Emor speaks directly about the universalism of justice and well-being. It does so in part through a disturbing story from chapter 24: A man of mixed descent profanes God’s name, an act so terrible that Moses orders the man stoned to death. Why would Torah go out of its way to identify this man’s heritage as “mixed”?
One answer might be that it doesn’t matter someone’s outer differences; whether “fully” or only “partly” Israelite, anyone who profanes God’s name puts the entire camp at risk. Everyone’s survival is at stake.
Just as blasphemy threatened the camp in biblical times, so, too, does coronavirus threaten us all today. This virus doesn’t care who we are or what we do. It will infect whoever among us contracts it. Moses was like a biblical Dr. Fauci or Dr. Birx, if you’ll allow the thinly stretched analogy. Moshe perceived the massive threat to everyone in the camp and their well-being, no matter who — Israelite or other — uttered God’s name in vain.
Elsewhere in Parshat Emor, lechem ha panim — the showbread displayed before the entire camp, further illustrates the notion of communal inter-reliance. It starts from one single mass of dough and is baked into 12 loaves, symbolizing the 12 tribes. Starting from a single, common source symbolizes brotherhood. With each loaf the same size and shape, it further symbolizes the notion that justice and equality is “baked in.” Finally, the loaves are baked in pans so wide that they can be stacked into two neat columns — perhaps intended to look like the two tablets.
Rabbi S. R. Hirsch said that the lechem ha panim showed that “each tribe devotes itself to the support of its brother tribe as much, or nearly as much, as it devotes to supporting itself.”
In today’s parlance, observing health guidelines resembles the showbread, in that it is a form of both sacrifice and of service. In so doing, we support each other at least as much as, if not more, than we support ourselves.
Thankfully, today, we don’t turn to stoning as a means of quelling viruses that threaten us. We rightly turn to science and medicine. Then, as now, however, when it comes to societal threats, we are all responsible for each other. By sheltering in place, we are expressing our love and care for each other; we are protecting one another and we are helping each other live. May the Holy Blessed One bring a swift end to this virus and bring healing to us all soon.
Aura Ahuvia is rabbi at Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy.