What I learned when I had COVID

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Last Wednesday, the morning NPR proclaimed that the national death toll from COVID-19 was fast approaching the one million mark, I noticed I was sniffling a little more than usual.

With little thought, I did a quick test for COVID and watched for the appearance of the dreaded double band.

What made me think I could avoid this decree indefinitely?

In March 2020, we began to confront a culture of death. A few weeks into the pandemic, I lost beloved devotees to COVID. My mother-in-law passed away from COVID.

But something else also died – my old way of being a rabbi. Like everyone else, I learned the Torah of resilience. I turned my synagogue into an online shul. I went from rabbi to television producer. I developed skills in Power Point, Zoom, Facebook Live. I became adept at doing adult education via Zoom and seeing my students as if they were competitors in Hollywood squares. Like many of my colleagues, I consistently broke the Tenth Commandment and coveted the remarkable online capabilities of the more affluent congregations. I called it COVID covid.

By Memorial Day 2020, two months into the pandemic, our country had lost 100,000 people.

Two years later, that number has increased tenfold.

In the days following my positive test, I found myself a new teacher.

What has Rav COVID taught me?

The power of chaos. Whenever people accuse our ancient sacred writings of being “primitive”, they are not acknowledging something: we are all still primitive. This is why the Torah is eternally relevant. Because human nature has not changed.

When I told my friends I had COVID, some of them said, “How did you get it?”

This question – “How did you get it?” – carried a suspicious, almost salacious note. Like having an STD.

Because, if I can name what I did, or didn’t do, or didn’t do, or a place I went, or an event I attended, then my friends could rationally understand what not to do in order to avoid COVID.

But, the Talmud would have agreed with my friends. The Talmud (Berachot 5a) states: “If a person sees that he is suffering, he should examine his actions.

OKAY. I did and found nothing out of the ordinary. I was doing my business in the world, interacting with anyone, doing anything. Not only that: I had been vaccinated—four times! I did everything possible and everything necessary.

What infected me was the total chaos of existence. As Maimonides said, “The world works according to its patterns.” Biology, epidemiology, the laws of physics: none of them have a clue who beautiful people are.

True: COVID has become less nasty. But, it has also become more contagious. Like everything else in the universe, it obeys the unwritten law of life. He wants to survive, and this survival instinct takes no prisoners.

The Laws of Leviticus. For me (I say with humility and gratitude), the physical symptoms of COVID were mild.

But, the spiritual symptoms were much heavier. They understood the guilt that I might have infected others; and too bad that I was obviously not careful enough.

Allow me to re-introduce you to a character who wandered through the book of Leviticus just a few weeks ago.

I am referring to the metzorah, the one who has been diagnosed with tzaraat, often translated as “leprosy”, but more precisely, a kind of unpleasant skin disease, such as psoriasis or eczema.

As Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg reminds us in her dazzling new commentary on Leviticus, The Hidden Order of Intimacy: Reflections on the Book of Leviticus, the metzorah/”leper”/afflicted must:

Proclaims its own impurity. repeating the word tamei: three times in the priest’s diagnosis in verse 44, twice more in the leper’s cry, and twice more in the narrator’s voice—seven times in three verses. There is an incantatory, performative power of the word, which translates the effect of the toxic use of language by the leper.

Yes, it was me.

“I have COVID.” “I cannot meet you; I have COVID.”

There is a word for it. It’s a word we don’t use often these days, but here goes: stigma.

I returned to the teachings of sociologist Erving Goffman – his book, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, which I had read decades ago as an undergrad.

Goffman sees stigma as an attribute or behavior that socially discredits the individual. It classifies the individual as undesirable and rejected.

It was me. The dual band COVID test has become my flag of tumah, ritual impurity, social unacceptability, stigma.

So what did I do? I put on a mask; I came home from the office; I remained at home.

The term is badad, loneliness, the same term the pagan prophet Balaam used to describe the existential plight of the Jewish people, “a people who dwell alone.”

It’s the kind of existential loneliness that awaits you as a sick adult – a sort of exile from your colleagues and loved ones.

Once again, Avivah Zornberg comes to teach us something about the nature of the disease. She reminds us that the Aramaic term for tzaraat, sickness in Leviticus, is segiru – to be closed. It’s not even how you treat disease; it is in the very nature of the disease itself.

Locked up, the patient lives in a state of suspended animation. His pathology represents an interruption of life, a sort of limbo, of not-yet-knowing what to think or what to say, of being absorbed, disoriented.

The grace of prayer. Two days ago I saw the blessed single tape on the COVID test. I was clean, pure, tahor, destigmatized.

I “established Gomel”. I recited the traditional prayer: “….who has done me good”, which a patient recites after his recovery.

I thought of all the prayers and wishes I had received from my devotees and friends – emails, phone calls, text messages. The ancient sages say that anyone who visits the sick (even virtually) removes one-sixtieth of the disease. Therefore, they say, let sixty people come to visit!

Here’s what they knew: personal presence and words have their own healing power. They send the message: you matter.

But, with that comes the stubborn realization that I was lucky. Within a mile of my house, my black neighbors aren’t doing as well. Or, ten miles from my home, migrants and prisoners.

I write these words in the morning before Lag Ba’omer — the 33rd day of the omer count, the period between Passover and Shavuot. Traditional sources say that during the war against the Romans, a plague decimated the students of Rabbi Akiba, and that the plague ceased, precisely, on the 33rd day. In traditional Jewish circles and in Israel, Lag B’Omer is a day of rejoicing and pure pleasure.

For me, the plague has ceased – at least this time.

May it be true that this scourge will end – this time, for all and forever.

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