Read Full Sermon
This week, I compared notes with a few clergy colleagues on how they were faring. They reflected on their jobs as a constant game of Whac-A-Mole, of the loneliness of leading services on Zoom or with the Eichmann plexi partitions around them, of their schedules turned over to A/V production, COVID protocols, and an unceasing cascade of difficult decisions and uncomfortable budgetary choices. It is not just that clergy are spending time doing stuff that they never learned in rabbinical school, it is that they are spending very little time doing the stuff that they actually went to rabbinical school for and that they were actually hired for – like teaching, pastoral care, and being in the company of the Jewish lives and community they are tasked to build. I can only speak to being a rabbi, I don’t know what it is like to be a classroom teacher, a doctor, or a cab driver, but I imagine it is the same. We are all doing things we never imagined we would do, at a pace and in an isolation not of our choosing, and at the expense of things we actually want to do. We are all feeling the burnout, the fatigue, and the trauma – physically, mentally, spiritually, and professionally. Exhausted, isolated and depressed. They say you can’t pour from an empty cup, and right now, friends, our cup most certainly does not runneth over.
And now we are being told, like the metzora of old, that it is time to return to the camp and community – time to return to life, time to jump back in!
I know, I know, it is all very exciting. Spring is coming, vaccinations are on the rise, and grandchildren are able to see their grandparents. I am as energized as anyone to return to normal. Having minyan in person last Sunday morning for the first time in over a year brought me and many others, literally, to tears. But if you peel beneath that optimism, what you will find is a whole lot of anxiety. Why? Well, I am no social scientist, but anecdotally, I can think of all sorts of reasons.
First, there is anxiety over vaccinations. Not just because of the bumpy rollout or the question of variants, but because not every American is as gung-ho about vaccines as I am, a confidence deficit that was not helped with this week’s news of a pause. Besides, if you have young kids, even if you are vaccinated, your children are not – no small issue when thinking about summer, childcare, or school next fall. It is one thing to plan school, shul, or otherwise when everyone is vaccinated or everyone is not. But what about when some people are and some people are not? The questions are getting more complicated, not less.
The second source of anxiety comes from a realization that no matter the promise of good news, we are nowhere near out of the woods. It’s all very nice to talk about reopening and going back to work, but I suspect our country’s herd mentality is going to get us into a lot of trouble before we reach herd immunity. It used to be that if you took the subway, the way to thumb your nose at authority was to play your music too loud. Now it is refusing to wear a mask, and let me tell you, our present civic spirit is not one that really encourages one citizen to call another to account. I personally can walk to work every day, and the less my teenage kids see of me, the happier they are. But if you are a single mother in Queens who is expected to take a subway to work every morning, is it fair for your employer to ask you to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with unmasked strangers on the number 7 train? These are complicated ethical and perhaps even legal questions, not to mention the ethical elephant in the room as to whether vaccinations will be required for staff, for students, or for Jews in the pews. Again, when we were on lockdown, it was actually simpler in the sense that nobody expected anyone to go anywhere. But now it is much more complicated. Workplaces are not synced with schools. Some people must come to work to do their jobs; others are able to do their jobs remotely. Some people get to close their office doors, others sit in an open office. Is it possible to treat everyone equitably but not equally? There is a lot of grey area, a lot of stuff that needs to be figured out. None of us have a crystal ball and, at risk of stating the obvious, nobody is actually trained to handle the questions. We are all preparing for a new normal that none of us know what it will actually look like.
Perhaps most importantly, and I think it is this point that our Torah reading understands better than anyone, is that the trauma of this past year has taken a psychosocial toll, the meaning of which we are not even close to understanding. For some, working from home is great, for others less so, but for all, our one-year-plus separation has weakened the social bonds by which our personal and professional communities are constituted. It was nerve-wracking for that metzora to think about reentering community – just like it is nerve-wracking for us. More than any other people, Jews understand that when you experience loss, it takes time to be reintegrated into normalcy – one week, one month, one year at a time. Post-traumatic recovery is not some switch that flips and all fears magically dissipate. There is tremendous social anxiety built into whatever the next months have in store, and we do ourselves and our communities a tremendous disservice if we just sweep it under the rug imagining there will be a seamless return to pre-pandemic normal.
All of which, I believe our Torah reading understood. The Torah is unapologetic in its insistence that the metzora, when physically safe to do so, engage in the conversation on reintegration. It may be human to want to avoid it, to curl up indefinitely as if in a cocoon, but willingly or unwillingly, we must end our social hibernation. We are going to return to community; we will return to life. The power of the text, however, is not just the requirement that the metzora step up for the conversation, but the insistence that the kohen engage in a pastoral conversation with the metzora. According to the commentary, the kohen must literally go outside the camp to meet that angst-ridden once-afflicted metzora “where they are,” both physically and spiritually, to hear their concerns and acknowledge their fears. Then and only then can the process of reintegration happen. The precise steps of reintegration are never actually spelled out. In other words, while there may not be a single right way to do reintegration, there is a wrong way, and that is to do it without a conversation, without communication, without acknowledging the human condition of the other.
We have to engage with each other. We have to be in dialogue. We must exchange views and share expectations by speaking and listening, judging everyone generously and, most importantly, keeping our sense of humor. God knows, we have been through an awful lot apart from one another. As we imagine coming back together, let’s fill our cups so that one day soon, please God, we will raise them together in person – toasting l’chaim, to life!