I’ve slid back into old habits over the past two weeks.
I struggle with obsessive hand and body washing, as a way of coping with past sexual trauma. My body feels polluted and tainted, and I wash it obsessively to provide some momentary relief from these feelings. At the best of times, I can learn to cope with these feelings that my body has been invaded from outside without taking four showers a day.
Needless to say, these are not the best of times. With a major pandemic raging, I can justify my obsessive washing tendencies as nothing more than good hygiene. I can rationalize my unhealthy coping mechanisms as responsible citizenship.
I can tell myself that for once, my feeling that my body is a diseased, fleshly animal is a feeling shared by everyone.
When I learned about the ten plagues in Hebrew school as a child, the teacher would spend the most time telling us about the Angel of Death, or perhaps frogs or locusts. But I always found myself most infatuated by the boils, these strange, alien markings that sprouted on the bodies of the Egyptians, without their knowledge or consent.
It wasn’t the pain of the boils or the illness itself that preoccupied me; rather, I would imagine these Egyptians looking at their reflections in the Nile River and suddenly seeing their bodies invaded by strange patterns, their own reflections as something they could no longer recognize. It always felt like a form of body horror, this feeling that suddenly their bodies no longer belonged to them.
I’ve felt that way for years, that my body is an alien being imposed on me from outside, thrust upon me without my consent. During a pandemic, I imagine I’m not the only one feeling this way, that my body is a site of betrayal, something I desperately wish I could tame and place under my control, but which always eludes me.
But Jewish tradition tells us that this very lack of control is deeply significant, even generative. The Mekhilta d’Rabbi Ishmael, a halachic midrash to the Book of Exodus, tells us that one of the most important elements of the Exodus narrative is that the Israelites received the Torah at Sinai and not in the land of Israel, that “the Torah was given in public, openly in a place free to all. For if the Torah had been given in the land of Israel, the Israelites could have said to the gentiles, ‘You have no share in it. But it was given in the wilderness, in public, openly in a place free to all, so that anyone wishing to accept it could come and do so.”
In other words, the early rabbis taught that Israel had to receive the Torah in a place that we did not possess ownership or control over, to escape the false pride of thinking the Torah fully belongs to us.
I like to think of this as a lesson about the limitations of control, that there are always elements in our tradition that we cannot fully possess or understand. That just as our bodies, those places most intimate and closest to us, can seem so alien and strange, so too must the Torah, the most important text in our tradition, always escape our grasp, elude our full understanding.
The Exodus narrative shows God inflicting a bodily violation upon the Egyptians. But it also shows God teaching us a lesson about our lack of control and agency.
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At a time like this, when all of our potentially infected bodies seem strange and unfamiliar to us, I am trying to hold onto that knowledge; I may feel out of control, but that very lack of control is an important part of Jewish tradition, which others have shared.
And in the meantime, I’ll remember that obsessively washing, too, is part of our tradition.
This is one in a series of pieces on Passover during coronavirus. Read the rest of the series here.
Joel Swanson is a contributing columnist for the Forward and a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, studying modern Jewish intellectual history and the philosophy of religions. Find him on Twitter @jh_swanson.
Anti-COVID cleansing gets a lesson from the Torah: We don’t control everything.