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Tazria-Metzora 5780: "Kavod Over Covid"

Rabbi Mike Rothbaum

The Torah reading this week is, on first glance, less than gripping.  It discusses, in great detail, how we are to confront a plague of what’s called tzaraatTzaraat is a scaly affliction that can strike the walls of houses, clothing, as well as human skin.

Excited yet?  Did I mention that this week there’s a double portion? 

But there’s a detail in the discussion of tzaraat that bears mentioning.  At the beginning of the section detailing how to treat someone with tzaraat, the text reads Adam ki yihiyeh v’or

“When a person has [tzaraat] on the skin…”[1]

Notice the first word.  Adam.  In a discussion of a physical condition, the Torah starts by spotlighting a crucially important moral point — there’s a person involved.

Don’t forget the humanity, and divinity, behind the pathology.

We’re in a time when it’s easy to forget that humanity.  Front pages of newspapers and websites alike feature graphs, with dates and numbers.  As scary as the numbers are, they keep us at a distance from the reality of sickness and death.

And, of course, of life. 

Even those of us who don’t know much about Jewish law know the emphasis it places on life. 

The Torah opens with the creation of life.  It closes with an exhortation.  Uvcharta B’chayim, Moses demands.  “Choose life!”[2]  The obligation is echoed in our toast, reverberating from Torah to Tevye.

L’chayim!  “To life!”

Pikuach nefesh, saving a life, takes precedence over almost all other mitzvotkashrut, fasting on Yom Kippur, Shabbat.  It’s why we’re making a minyan over Zoom instead of in person.

We might expect this to be a universally held value.  If so, we would be disappointed.  Last month, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick asked, not hypothetically, “Are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren? … if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.”  In Tennessee, a demonstrator at a rally protesting the closing of non-essential businesses wore a sign, saying “sacrifice the weak; reopen [Tennessee].”

This is abhorrent to us as Jews.  Because of Torah, but not just because of Torah.  This past Tuesday, I was so proud that the Cantor and I could co-lead our Yom HaShoah service with students and teachers from our religious school.  They shared reflections from young people who themselves endured the horrors of the Holocaust.

It might be uncomfortable, but it is important for us to remind the world, as Jews, that the rhetoric of “sacrificing the weak” hearkens back to Nazi philosophy, to a worldview that eagerly consumes human life in the name of some amorphous “greater good.”

Those human lives might be gays and lesbians, or the developmentally disabled, or immigrants, or political opponents, or — of course — Jews.  Or some combination.  But in all cases, the idea that we would eagerly sacrifice human beings, created in God’s image, for country or flag or economy or GDP figure is anathema to Jewish belief.

Yes, it is true, Judaism does have its martyrs.  We say that those murdered for being Jews have been killed al kiddush haShem, for the “sanctification of God’s Name.”  But we don’t dare say that these deaths were, God forbid, glorious or in any other way desirable. 

By contrast, in the ancient Near East, there were religious traditions that offered up human lives to satisfy the appetites of capricious gods.  In the land of Canaan, that god’s name was Molech.  It’s why, in next week’s Torah portion, we’ll read lo titen l’ha’avir l’Molech.  “Don’t give [your people] over to Molech.”[3]

Of course, Molech sounds like another Hebrew word: Melech.  “Ruler.”  As in Melech haOlam, “Ruler of the World.”  God.

Some people confuse the two.  If we want to make real the promise of a God of Love and Dignity, we have to stand strong for that God.  We have to resist the temptation to offer our neighbors to any Molech, to marginalize the weak or old or whatever precious life, always a reflection of the Divine, might be deemed by the Molech-worshipper to be dispensable.

Yes, this crisis is causing unprecedented financial challenge.  It is scary.  But the solution isn’t to sacrifice our neighbors and relatives.  The solution is to pool our resources, to follow the Torah’s path of sharing our God-given blessings, to ensure that everyone has what they need to live and thrive.

There is a word that sums up this Jewish approach to our world.  Ironically, in the time of Covid, the word is kavod.  Even more ironically, in Yiddish, it’s pronounced koved.  Honor, dignity, respect.

As our scholar-in-residence, Dr. Susannah Heschel, taught us, this is where we get the phrase kavod habriyot.  In English, “the respect due creation” — specifically, human beings.  As the Rambam instructs judges in his Mishneh Torah, “all actions should be for the sake of Heaven,” which he explains to mean that kavod habriyot should never be taken lightly.[4]

And so, as Jews we continue to fight Covid with kavod

Primarily, we remind ourselves that this means that all human beings have inherent worth, a message which is a gift given by the Jewish people to the world.  People are not expendable.  They are not white cell counts or wages or any other statistic.  They are each, in the words of our parasha, an adam.  A sacred human life.

For us, at CBE, this means a few things.  First of all, this community must be physically safe.  As you know, David Leers, our president, has convened a Covid task force, to help our community respond to the needs of the moment.  We continue to gather the latest information from state and local authorities regarding the situation here in Massachusetts.  I give you my word, and I know I spesak for him as well — we will only make decisions that we are sure are safe.

Not just for some of us.  For all of us.

And we won’t stop there.  The Brotherhood and Sisterhood, together with Na’aseh, are working with the Cantor, David and me to create ways in which we can come together to help those in financial need during this crisis, both in and outside of our Jewish community.  Look in the coming days for information on how to help.

All in the name of kavod habriyot.  Human dignity.

And one final reminder.  Covid has affected all of us in one way or another.  Tempers are short, and our reserves of patience and compassion have been depleted.  More than ever, we need to commit to treating each other with honor and respect — the kavod that, as human beings, is both our right and our obligation.

Covid is here.  We haven’t been given a choice about that.  But whether or not we show each other kavod?  That’s entirely in our hands.

Let’s remember that we have control over how we speak, what we do, where we dedicate our resources, how we move through this confusing and uncertain moment.

May we confront Covid, as individuals and as a community, with a renewed and invigorated commitment to kavod.

That we remember who we are.  That we remind the world who we are.


[1] Leviticus 13:2

[2] Deuteronomy 30:19

[3] Leviticus 18:21

[4] Mishneh Torah, Sanhedrin 24:10

Thu, March 30 2023 8 Nisan 5783