By Rabbi Betsy Forester
Neither hunkered down in full quarantine nor fully “free” for the social intercourse we knew before the pandemic, we are beginning to venture out, but not without trepidation. We are living in an in-between, liminal, space. As much as we yearned for a vaccine, now that they are rolling out, our Jewish community continues to move cautiously toward in-person gatherings.
Besides not having reached “herd immunity,” I sense that something more internal, and critically important, is holding us back. As much as we may wax nostalgic for the “before” times, we know that we can never go back exactly to our pre-pandemic selves. We have changed during this shut-in time. We are not the same, and the people we are eager to see in person are not the same.
How we live our days is how we live our lives. We have lived differently over the past 400+ days. In that time, we cultivated life-giving ways of being that are now part of us. In some ways, we are wiser, more reflective, more present in the moment, and more socially aware. We fear losing those gains. In other ways, we are grieving collective loss and personal loss. We have not been able to weep together in the same room, dance at weddings, share a birthday cake, and so very much more. We fear that the joy of seeing one another from head to toe will make it difficult for us to see and be seen in our losses as well.
How we have lived the past 400+ days has changed us. Deep down, beneath the “I can’t wait to see you in person and give you a great big hug!”s, we know that re-emerging into in-person communal life will demand of us not only courage but also delicacy and sensitivity.
We are now at the part of our Torah reading cycle known as the “Holiness Code.” In describing how we are to make ourselves holy, the Book of Leviticus takes what feels like a sharp turn from detailing sacrificial rites and rituals into the realm of intimate human interaction. It turns out that we are called to make ourselves holy not only, or even mostly, through the sacrificial cult of our ancestors. Where we might have expected commands for public ritual or even private prayer, instead, the Torah tells us that we uncover our holiness through the ways in which we behave--what we do and what we say--in our ordinary lives. Our ordinary lives will be different if we live out what we have learned during this unusual time.
Profoundly, the biblical text moves from animal sacrifices to not hunting for sport, to intimate relations. Out of broad public view, we are called to leave the produce at the corners of our fields for those who need to eat what grows there, to pay workers without delay, not to hate our kinspeople, and to reprove them when necessary. The Torah is telling us that there is no difference between who we are at home and in the field, the sanctuary, or the board room. We carry ourselves whole, wherever we go. How we live our days is how we live our lives.
Before long, we will emerge from our cocoons, tender and hopeful. May we soon bring our hole-y, holy selves wholly, bravely, and tenderly, into communal life.
Rabbi Betsy Forester joined Beth Israel Center as their spiritual leader in 2018. She is a master teacher and religious leader skilled at helping people build meaningful lives through transformative Jewish experiences rich in authenticity, depth, empowerment, intellectual rigor, sacredness, and joy.