A Biblical Quarantine

To draw parallels between this week’s Parsha and our current events is not hard.  Afflicted with a disease called Tzora’as, the Metzorah or Leper, is quarantined for 14 days outside the camp.  Tzora’as could appear in one’s clothing, on surfaces and really disrupt someone’s way of life.  It frightens me that someone might take an obviously false, yet easy cheap potshot of drawing a parallel of contracting Covid-19 the same way someone would get Tzora’as.   

There are a few things about Tzora’as that fascinate me.  Is Tzora’as a contagious disease that needs quarantining in order to stop the spread (Ralbag) or is it a disease confined to one’s skin or clothing and home (Abarbanel)?  Is it a symptom, albeit miraculous, of a spiritual malady just like fatigue is a symptom of a lack of sleep or is it a punishment?  If it is a punishment, is it a punishment (Rambam) or a warning to do Teshuva (Sefer Kesser Shem Tov) prior to punishment?  Many use Tzora’as as an example in the confusing discussion of the function of “s’char ve’onesh- reward and punishment” in Torah and Jewish life.  I think there is something deeper going on with Tzora’as than reward and punishment.  Tzora’as does not exist in our lives anymore.  Perhaps because we don’t have a Kohen to treat it anymore or perhaps Hashem has simply decided to remove this miraculous experience.  But what seems clear is that Tzora’as is something that applies to us in a deep way. 

What has always fascinated me most, though, is that Tzora’as is not a natural or physical disease like modern-day leprosy or any kind of experience nowadays.  Tzora’as is a miraculous physical manifestation of a completely spiritual problem.  And this is what I have always been fascinated by.  And I tried thinking about this for a few years until my Rebbi, Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, shared the following idea as his Shabbos morning drasha.

Most of us have been educated with a sense of clear definitive boundaries between the physical and spiritual realms of our lives.  When we do Mitzvohs we are engaged in spirituality, when we are at work we are engaged in materialism.  The act of a Mitzvah is the body of the Mitzvah and our inner intentions and experience of doing the Mitzvah, our kavana, is the soul of the Mitzvah.  We all have a Yetzer Horah and Yetzer Tov that are at war inside use.  The Ba’al HaTanya talks about the distinctions between the Nefesh Ha’behamis (animalistic soul) and the Nefesh Elokis (Godly soul) that we are all comprised of.  And so on… Duality, compartmentalized, makes it easy for us to understand abstract concepts and how they apply to our lives so that we can all grow ourselves into the beauty of who we can be.

This duality also has a downside.  But let’s take a detour…

Reish Lakish asks, “What do the words ‘Zos teheeyeh toras hametzorah- This will be the Torah of the Metzorah’ mean?  It means ‘Zo t’hey toras hamotzei rah- This will be the fate of the one who expresses evil’ (Eruchin 15:) 

Reish Lakish plays on the word Metzorah and changes it to Motzi Ra, someone who expresses evil.  This is our basic source for the common understanding that Tzora’as is a direct result of Lashon Harah, gossip.  Although other, later sources seem to clump other sins and character defects together with Lashon Harah.  Loshon Horah, gossip, throwing shade on another person, is a mistake in understanding what it means to see someone’s defects or mistakes.  We all know the Ba’al Shem Tov’s teaching about seeing someone else sin or fail, or even seeing someone else’s character defects.  Shortcomings are personal and private; they are the property of the one who possesses them and no one really has the right to see them.  In truth, I should cringe when I see someone fail.  If Hashem allows me to see the shortcomings of another person there must be a reason why.  If I must witness someone mess up, it means there is something about that defect that I personally connect with.  Reflecting on someone else’s shortcomings and thinking about them is to cross a boundary into their world, their psyche, their personal world.  And completely miss the opportunity to learn something about myself.

I remember once being out to eat with my wife and as we ate casually on the outdoor tables of the restaurant, two cop cars pulled up and arrested someone a few feet in front of us.  It was quite dramatic and that night I had a dream that I had been arrested.  The dream was vivid enough that I was uneasy about it the next day.  When I stopped thinking about the actual person who was arrested and began thinking about whatever messages my unconscious was trying to tell me I finally calmed down.  And I learned something I needed to think about in my life.  Witnessing failures in someone is a mirror for me to reflect deeper into myself.  To turn inward, not towards the other person.  Somehow our minds always confuse who the protagonist of the story is.

How much of our talk is about other people?  How much do actively search out information about others?  How much do we analyze the information we have about others?  I think there is a healthy degree of voyeurism, of curiosity that we all have.  I don’t think anyone should become a therapist if they didn’t have a deep interest in knowing about other people.  As a therapist we spend years honing our skills and working out our personal interests and curiosities about people’s lives.  Because our tendency is to use voyeurism as a way of avoiding thinking about ourselves.  I would take it a step farther.  If you listen to the way most people talk about other people, it is usually an indication of how they think about themselves in some deep recesses of their minds.  Hyper-critical people are usually hyper-critical of themselves in some way.  Genuinely caring people usually care about themselves too.

And this brings us back to duality.  Loshon Horah is a symptom of dualistic thinking.  Dualistic Thinking means to look at everything with binary opposites, everything is compartmentalized into categories of good and bad or right and wrong or more important and less important. Everything falls into a 2-dimensional hierarchy, thereby simplifying and diminishing everything to a size smaller than real life.  Nuance is lost, subtlety is washed away and the opportunity for being enriched by differences is lost in the incessant scuffle between black and white.  Dualistic thinking is pernicious.  The persistent chase of “the right thing” leaves us handicapped in experiencing anything in its totality.  Whatever we deem “the wrong thing” is rejected summarily. In reality, almost nothing in life is clearly polarized, “correctness” is defined by many different variables that dualism will never find. 

To say Loshon Horah is to look at someone with the eyes of dualism.  To see another person with eyes that make them smaller in your heart than they really are in life.  It means diminishing them into pre-fabricated compartments of right or wrong, better or worse, more important or less important and more righteous or less righteous.  It means that subtlety and nuance go walking and any slight difference is immediately rejected.  It means to “other” people and distance them.  It means to keep people separate from you.   It is the opposite of relationship. 

Dualistic Thinking is a human experience.  It is what keeps cultures distant from each other, communities at odds with each other and countries at war with each other.  Dualistic thinking is the reason why so many people don’t know how to have conversations.  They are so busy evaluating the validity of what they hear that they are either approving, challenging or disagreeing all the time.  Everything is an argument.  Everything compartmentalized into whatever hierarchies their brain or our society has dreamt up.  They never actually see people or hear their words, they are so busy “othering” them.  This is the core of Loshon Hora- to see the world from the vantage point of duality.

And this of course has theological implications.  Dualism, in its purest form holds that good and evil are two separate energies at war with each other.  Which means that you would trace them back to two different roots.  Which would mean that there are two different Gods.  Christians believe in the existence of a separate force of evil, Satan and hell.  Separate from God.  Jews don’t.  The Alter Rebbe and all the Tzaddikim were looking to formulate a way, based on this very particular idea, to demonstrate the Unity of all things.  Hashem is Echad (One), Yachid (Alone) MeYuchad (Unifier).  MeYuchad means that all things in this world are really One.  And this traces itself down to us, even internally.

Internally, dualistic thinking is what we would call second-guessing.  Ask anyone who suffers from anxiety and they will tell you how terrible it is to be paralyzed by second-guessing.  It can feel like we are contemplating different sides of a coin, analyzing different variables, comparing and contrasting ideas but in reality, simply experiencing a war of internal disagreements.  Second-guessing prevents us from actualizing a thought, an opinion, the things we want to or need to do.  Learning to move from internal disagreements to internal conversations is an Avodah both in maturity, and for those with anxiety an Avodah in healing.

In order to understand Tzora’as we must look at another form of internal dualistic thinking.  A form of internal Loshon Horah that has surreptitiously snuck into our tradition at different points in our history and has plagued us terribly in post-Holocaust Orthodox Jewry.  And that is the very fake duality between the material and spiritual world.  That there are two realities that we inhabit, one the material physical gashmius world and the other the spiritual religious ruchnius world.  The divide between the two is only in some theoretical distinctions we must use in our educational system, for purposes of illustration.  But the fallaciousness of a divide between the spiritual and material renders religion almost meaningless for Jews. 

Hashem is everything.  There is no duality between “in shule” and “at home” or “doing Mitzvohs” and “going to work”.  There is no real duality between “frum” and “not frum” or “heimish” and “not heimish”.  These kinds of dualities in our communities are reflected by the same dualities in people’s internal thinking and experiencing religion in their lives.  I go to shule and then I go home.  I wear my shule clothes and my learning Torah cap and then I transition into the “real life” of work and hobbies.  I do Mitzvohs and then I go on vacation.

Religion is a part time vocation.  But Judaism, in its core, is NOT a religion.  It is a way of life that sees Monotheism, Godliness in everything.  From the most surreal and abstract theology down to the way I think, feel and experience the world inside myself.  The amazing thing about the Metzorah is that he or she experiences a physical symptom in their body that is NOT a physical problem but a spiritual one.  Loshon Horah separates the two into dual realities.  Tzora’as is a miraculous demonstration of the implosion of dualistic thinking.  There is no division between my body and my spirit.  There are no two realities of physical life and religious life, of a Mitzvah and a mundane action.  All of it is part of one harmonious radically beautiful thing called Jewish life.  And the more I fuse it all together, the more balance I bring to my life, the more I use everything in my life, in this world to beautify everything else in my life and in this world is the better I mimic Hashem’s creation of the world.  The better I see and demonstrate Hashem in everything. 

I say Loshon Horah on my life when I create dualities in my personal life and hierarchies in a way that is rejecting of or repressing of physicality.  I say Loshon Horah on Torah when my observance of its beauty is not seamless but separates life into false dualities.  I say Loshon Horah on the Jewish people when I fail to see nuances and subtleties in others but need to reject them because of their “differences”.  And so the message of Tzora’as, a physical symptom of a spiritual disease, let go of the dualities.  Both the physical and the spiritual are one entity, one complex reality that is for each of us to navigate, balance and use for greatness.  It is the reason why a Metzorah sees a Kohen and not a medical doctor.  Demonstrating that the physical reality reflects a spiritual ailment. 

And this is the reset button called “quarantine” that the Metzorah had to experience.  Go find yourself again.  Reintegrate dualities back into the whole.  Find the harmony in all of reality.  The Metzorah’s life implodes, he collapses into himself and must reflect on himself first.  Untying all the knots and destroying all the fake god’s of division and rejection that he carries within himself.  Rediscovering the art of internal conversation and soothing the wounds of all the internal war of disagreement, the judgment, the hyper-criticism and the dualistic thinking.  So that he can then re-enter the world softer, more tender and loving of other people without all the negativity and sharpness of distancing others.

May our quarantine be as deep and holy as Rashbi in the cave.  May our social distancing be a preparation for deeper connections.  May our handwashing be a heartwashing.  And may the masks we wear now be removed with a greater openness for vulnerability and tenderness in ourselves and in our relationships.  May the Hashem heal all of us who are sick.  Heal all of us personally and reset the fracturing of our people and the brokenness the world over.  May our separation from each other be a recalibration of our attitudes, priorities, spirits and bodies. And may the world’s quarantining itself be the womb for the birth of Holy Harmony ever imagined.  With the coming of Moshiach and our House of Wholeness and Peace, our Beis Hamikdash, Bm’Heira BYameinu.