Here’s something that happens frequently in my house around Jewish holidays: we’ll have questions — do we really have to bake something special, make an extra trip to the store, spend the extra time preparing? Can’t we just phone this one in a bit? In order to justify the extra expense or the effort, I will turn to my wife, Kate, and say something like this: “But I love Purim— it’s my favorite one!” And Kate will remind me: “Honey, you say that every single time, about every holiday.”
But it’s true— I love Purim! It’s a lot of fun if you make the time for it— and I was getting very excited to celebrate with my new community in Toronto last Monday evening. Then we got news that one of our members was in self-quarantine; the only responsible call was to cancel the event, at which we expected over four hundred people to come through our synagogue. So you can imagine that I was disappointed, like I’m sure lots of people were that we had to take a step back and postpone our festivities. Intellectually, I understood the risk of exposure and that public safety was a number one priority. But when I got home Monday evening, I turned to Kate and said what I always say: “But I love Purim. It’s my favorite one.” And this time she said: “I know. I’m sorry you’re sad. Let’s find a way to celebrate together”. So we made a nice dinner, had a glass of wine, toasted Mordecai and Esther and cursed Haman (boo!), and tried to enjoy ourselves.
It’s hard to judge, in a time like this, how cautious we should be. It’s easy to see an empty shelf in the store where toilet paper should be and think people are overreacting, or to get frustrated that a holiday celebration is canceled— and to underestimate the risk. Likewise, it’s easy to get panicked, to rush to protect ourselves and our loved ones, and to go overboard. You likely don’t need a surgical mask if you aren’t showing symptoms of anything; but the demand for them has made them impossible to find— which puts the people who do need them, like healthcare workers, in danger. Either way, whether we are underestimating or overdoing it, we run the risk of thinking only of ourselves, and not enough of the people around us. The difficulty of judging our need for physical distance can turn into something much worse: moral distance.
Moral distance is what happens when we lose perspective on our responsibilities; when we center ourselves out of fear and forget about the world around us. When we panic in the face of crises like a pandemic, we are also in danger of causing moral damage— not only to others, but to ourselves.
We recently read the Torah portion called Ki Tissa, which contains the story of the golden calf. Usually, we focus on the more dramatic parts of the story: the people’s panic in Moses’ absence, the mob pressure on leaders like Aaron to comply, the sin of idolatry, G!d’s anger and the broken tablets of the covenant. But there is a strange and overlooked detail that has something to teach us about both social and moral distance. After Moses has chastised the people and persuaded G!d not to destroy them outright, the Torah reports that Moses took a tent mihutz lamachaneh, outside the camp, and distanced himself from the people. Further, this tent is not just any tent, but is called ohel mo’ed; the tent of meeting— that is, the tabernacle, the very structure which is meant to be at the center of the community’s religious life.
What does it mean that Moses removes the tent of meeting— the center of communal worship— to distance it from the people? How could Moses, known for his humility, be so selfish? Doesn’t he know that the people need a sign G!d is with them in the midst of their suffering? Nachmanides, the 13th century sage, teaches that Moses removed himself from the people as a kind of quarantine. The idolatrous worship of material wealth that the people engaged in by making the calf was a kind of moral contagion— one which spread quickly throughout the camp. Preventing the spread of this spiritual malady became Moses’ only option. As the only individual not involved in that sin, Moses could not risk becoming, in some way, infectious. To do so would remove any possibility of the people maintaining a relationship with G!d. In fact, G!d also goes into a kind of quarantine in, saying only a few verses before this: rega achat ehehleh b’kirb’cha v’kiliticha— “if I were to go up in your midst for even just a moment— I would destroy you.” This self-isolation, if we can call it so, is a protective measure for the people, even though it feels like abandonment.
I think that mostly we understand and are comfortable with the need to keep our distance from one another in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic. After all, if certain activities are non-essential, then the risk of infection is not worth it But it is making us question where our religious life fits into that spectrum of necessity. We don’t think of attending religious services the same way we think about NBA basketball or Broadway shows. I’d say that most of us affiliate with our synagogues because we feel compelled to say kaddish for our loved ones, support each other and receive support from the people we are close to, and make an effort to reach out to G!d— to offer our gratitude and pray for help, to remind ourselves that we are not alone and that life matters. Our religious life is anything but non-essential. The idea that G!d goes into quarantine, abandoning us in our time of need— that is really the biblical idea of suffering. I think that is why I was so upset at the idea that Purim was canceled; why it took me by surprise to hear that some of my colleagues at other synagogues were canceling not just kiddush lunches or large programs but all religious services. Yes, health and safety comes first. But if we don’t need our community, and our faith, in a moment like this, when do we need it?
But then we must also remember that Judaism isn’t only what we do in shul. It comes with us wherever we are, even mihutz lamachaneh— outside the camp. Even in quarantine. We can keep a social distance, while maintaining moral closeness. So the Torah also tells us, that when Moses went to enter the tent of meeting outside the camp, this was the time when he would speak to G!d panim el panim, face to face, in intimacy, in private. And at the same time, the pillar of cloud would descend on the tent and show the people that the Divine Presence was still there. G!d never went into quarantine— never really abandoned the people; rather, G!d refocused the attention of the people. All they had to do was turn out from their own, private concerns; from the center of the camp, and look outward— to the margins.
We can work for moral proximity in a time of social distance. Even when gathering together for public worship and saying kaddish is impossible— we can still think of those who have suffered a recent loss and offer our support. Even when our holiday celebrations are canceled— we can find ways to do a mitzvah for someone in need and observe the day. Even when we have to remain apart from our social context— we can reach out to one another, make phone calls, write letters, and set up video conferences to cheer each other on, to cheer each other up. We can remember that as uncomfortable as it may be for us to maintain a physical distance, it is not just for our own sake but for the sake of those who are vulnerable; those who are on the margins. We can remove ourselves from the center of our universe and see that we are mutually interdependent— with our community, our family, our neighbors, with healthcare workers and the government, and yes, with G!d. If we can do that, we might see that even in isolation, quarantine, and social distance, we are not alone.