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In Leviticus, an unexpected lesson in surviving quarantine

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Up until two weeks ago, I thought that Vayikra, Leviticus, was the least relevant – and the most alienating – of the Books of Moses. After all, why would I want to read about animal sacrifices and types of impurity? What do the endless litanies of priestly rituals have to do with my actual life? Every year, I daydreamed my way through its pages, and wondered if the reader in shul get through it faster.

But then, with COVID-19, our world turned upside down and contracted into narrow, isolated spaces. And in our newly shaped world, Vayikra’s words strike chords I didn’t have the ears to hear before.

Before, I could never understand why we should learn in so much detail about every little ritual in the Tabernacle, and who does what, and when. Now, as I work hard to make our newly claustrophobic home into a place of calm and productivity, I understand the book’s insistence on such details. I know now that sans schedules, routines, and a division of labor, a system can become unmanageable, and fast.

Before, learning how to lay out the different parts of each sacrifice and when to eat them made me nauseous. Now, I can appreciate Leviticus’ underlying claim that our time and space should be managed with precision. Otherwise, how could I fit five different lives into three rooms, and keep them peaceful? Like the priests in Leviticus, I must count, and I must measure. Even our survival might depend on it; on counting sixty seconds when we’re washing hands, and keeping six feet between us when we walk outside.

“If his offering to the LORD is a burnt offering of birds, he shall choose his offering from turtledoves or pigeons,” Leviticus states in its very first chapter. Before, this openness to options failed to catch my attention. Now, after shopping for tissues in lieu of sold-out toilet paper, I suddenly appreciate this willingness to create alternative protocols for deviations from the plan.

When I read Leviticus now, it reminds me that there are things we can control – even right now. The past two weeks made me acutely aware of being flesh, and of the helplessness that comes with it. If I’ll get sick, I won’t control the effects of the disease. If my loved ones get sick, all my love wouldn’t help them. The Israelites, too, lived with immense unpredictability as they wandered the desert: They were on the move, but couldn’t control their itinerary or timetable. But they could create the Tabernacle, and manage its rituals, and those routines were theirs and theirs alone to control. My routines, too, are mine to shape and alter. By pouring myself into them, I keep the big unknowns at bay.

But if I lose myself in these routines, they can become, instead, a problem. It’s easy to focus on plans to the point that every deviation tastes like failure. And if my sole purpose in these past two weeks was to manage our limited time, space, and resources efficiently, it would have been easy to feel constantly dismayed. I would have despaired at the face of the chaos my toddler wrecked on his brother’s Zoom call. I would have been distressed when my daughter couldn’t hear her teachers over the headphones, and when I ran out of time to do my work. But Leviticus reminds me that routines serve a purpose that goes far beyond efficiency: The purpose of the Tabernacle wasn’t to be managed well — but rather to create the home of God.

The idea that God needs a home is absurd, of course, but maybe the point isn’t to make a home for God, but rather a place where we can feel at home with Him. We can never feel at ease with God in His entirety – we can’t even know Him. We can’t understand a God who is both the fountain of justice and the license to defy it. We can’t comprehend how the Moonlight Sonata can share a world with the smoke over Auschwitz. The God that allows it is beyond our understanding. But by establishing a place of strict routines and rituals, Leviticus made it possible for us to experience the Tabernacle as a place of familiarity and safety. It allowed us to feel at home in the Tabernacle, and thus, in some small way, at home with God.

When I read the words of Leviticus now, it reminds me to keep my eyes on the goal of my efforts. We didn’t work so hard to make our newly-confined space feel familiar, predictable, and, well, normal, just to be efficient. We did it so that our space could serve as a safe harbor in a storm we can’t control. I forge routines to make myself feel safe and my children feel comfort. With this goal in mind, little mishaps lose their power to rattle me: warmth, and not efficiency, is the purpose that I serve.

This hard-won feeling of relative safety is fragile, of course; it’s as fragile as flesh. All it takes is one look at the news, one quick peek beyond our walls and set routines, and my defenses crumble. How can I feel tranquil, when so many are dying? How can I feel at home in a world where everyone I know might sicken and die?

In these moments of panic, Leviticus offers me another type of comfort. It reminds me that it’s ok, that it’s right, to be altered by the presence of death. The laws of impurity give us seven days to be purified from such encounters.

In his commentary on Leviticus, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch argues that impurity occurs when we encounter the limits of our ability to shape reality. By specifying periods of time for purification, Leviticus recognizes that such encounters leave us shaken. How can we go on shaping our world when the big things – life and death – lie beyond our own control? Leviticus decrees that we need time to recover our sense of agency and power.

I think of this often in my daily moments of sheer horror. And I allow myself the time I need to grieve – and heal – before I try, again, to shape our home-sized world.

This Shabbat, I will open my copy of Leviticus, and for once, I believe that I’ll stay focused to the end. I’ll listen to what else this newly-pertinent book has to tell me in these days of turmoil. And I will pray that by the time we’ll read the words “I will grant peace in the land” in the final portion of the book, our world will find true peace and healing, inside and outside of our homes.

Rachel Sharansky Danziger lives and teaches Tanach in Boston.

In Leviticus, an unexpected lesson in surviving quarantine

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