By Bettijane Eisenpreis
“As for the person with a leprous affection, his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover his upper lip, and he shall call out, “Unclean, Unclean!” He shall be unclean as long as the disease is on him. Being unclean, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.”
Leviticus 13: 45-46
To modern eyes, Leviticus is often seen as one of the most difficult books of the Torah – a collection of dull, outdated laws and regulations. The parashah Tazria-Metzorah, for example, sets forth in excruciating detail rules concerning the ritual purity of persons and houses. What could be duller? And what does it have to do with our modern life?
The answer to that last question is, “Plenty.” The two verses quoted above state that a person affected by leprosy must be separated from the community, dwelling by the side of the road and proclaiming loudly that he or she is “unclean.” After a period of time, the priest would examine the leper, and if he was judged to be cured, he could return to the camp. However, if the priest did not find the leper clean, or if God told the Israelites to move on before the priest could perform the examination, the leper would be left alone to die.
While those lepers had to stay outside, people with COVID-19 today have to stay inside, but the prospect of isolation and neglect is similar. With not enough hospital beds or respirators, people who test positive for the coronavirus, or those who can’t even get tested, are being advised to “self-quarantine” for the good of the community. We are assured that this isolation is not a death sentence. Maybe not, but even if the patients recover, the scars of being alone when they are at their most vulnerable will last a long time. And some have already died because they couldn’t access treatment in time.
The effects of social isolation can be devastating. Many hospitals are unable to treat patients with life-threatening conditions unrelated to COVID-19 because of a shortage of beds and personnel. Access to hospitals is severely restricted, so that families cannot visit loved ones who are seriously ill or dying. Mothers are often forced to give birth with only medical personnel to help, while their husbands pace the floor at home, learning of the joyous event remotely. Older people, cooped up in their homes away from their friends and family, face a future more uncertain than before.
On the other hand, there are numerous, heartwarming examples of people reaching out to each other: singing on balconies, connecting through the Internet, calling and video conferencing with friends and family to say hello. Temple Emanu-El has been in the forefront of this effort to connect and comfort. While we take necessary steps to stay safe, we can only hope that love and compassion are not victims of this epidemic, and that no one will be left by the side of the road.