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What I learned when I got COVID

This is what ‘positive thinking’ can get you. In the midst of it all, COVID-19 became my rabbi.

A health care worker fills a syringe with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Jackson Memorial Hospital on Oct. 5, 2021, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

(RNS) — Last Wednesday, on the morning when NPR proclaimed the national death toll from COVID-19 was rapidly approaching the 1 million mark, I noticed I was sniffling a little bit more than usual.

I took a rapid test for COVID and looked on as the dreaded double stripe emerged.

What made me think I could indefinitely avoid this decree?

In March 2020, we began to confront a culture of death. Within weeks of the onset of the pandemic, I lost beloved congregants to COVID. My stepmother died of COVID.

But, something else died as well — my old way of being a rabbi. Like everyone else, I learned the Torah of resilience. I retooled my synagogue into an online shul. I transformed myself from rabbi to television producer. I developed skills in PowerPoint, Zoom, Facebook Live. I became adept at doing adult study via Zoom and seeing my students as if they were contestants on Hollywood Squares. Like many of my colleagues, I consistently broke the Tenth Commandment and coveted the remarkable online abilities of more affluent congregations. I called it COVID coveting.

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

Two years later, that number has multiplied tenfold.

In the days after I tested positive, I got myself a new teacher.

What did Rav COVID teach me?

The power of chaos

Whenever people accuse our ancient, sacred writings of being “primitive,” they fail to recognize something: We are all still primitive. That is why the Torah is eternally relevant. Because human nature has not changed.

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

That 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 failed to do, or a place I went, or an event I attended, then my friends could rationally figure out what not to do in order to prevent COVID.

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

OK. I did, and came up with nothing out of the ordinary. I went about my business in the world, interacting with whomever, doing whatever. Not only that: I had been vaccinated — four times! I did everything possible and everything necessary.

What infected me was the utter chaos of existence. As Maimonides put it: “The world works according to its patterns.” Biology, epidemiology, the laws of physics — none of them has any sense of who the 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. It wants to survive and that survival instinct takes no prisoners.

The laws of Leviticus

For me (I say with humility and with gratitude), the physical symptoms of COVID were light.

But the spiritual symptoms were much heavier. They included guilt that I might have infected others and shame that I obviously had not been sufficiently cautious.

Let me reintroduce you to a character, who had a walk-on part in the Book of Leviticus, just weeks ago.

I am referring to the metzorah, the one who has been diagnosed with tzaraat, often translated as “leprosy” but more accurately some kind of nasty skin ailment, like psoriasis or eczema.

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

Proclaim his own uncleanness. 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 voice of the narrator — all together seven times in three verses. There is an incantatory, performative power to the word, which conveys the effect of the leper’s toxic use of language.

Yes, that was me.

“I have COVID.”

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

There is a word for this. It is a word we do not often use these days, but here goes: stigma.

I went back to the teachings of the sociologist Erving Goffman in his book, “Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity,” which I had read decades ago as an undergraduate.

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

That was me. The double striped COVID test became my flag of tumah, of ritual uncleanness, of social unacceptability, of stigma.

So, what did I do? I put on a mask; I went home from the office; I stayed home.

The term is badad, solitude, the same term the heathen prophet Balaam used to describe the existential plight of the Jewish people, “a people that dwells alone.”

That is the kind of existential loneliness that awaits you as a sick adult — a kind of exile from your colleagues and loved ones.

Again, Avivah Zornberg comes to teach us something about the nature of illness. She reminds us that the Aramaic term for tzaraat, the illness in Leviticus, is segiru — to be closed off. This isn’t even the way that you treat the disease; it is in the very nature of the disease itself.

Locked in, the sufferer lives in a state of suspended animation. His pathology represents an interruption of life, a kind of limbo, of not-yet-knowing what to think or what to say, of being engrossed, bewildered.

The grace of prayer

Two days ago, I saw the blessed single stripe on the COVID test. I was clean, pure, tahor, de-stigmatized.

I “benched gomel.” I said the traditional prayer:  “… Who has done good for me,” which a sick person says upon recovery.

I thought of all the prayers and well wishes I had received, from my congregants and friends — emails, phone calls, text messages. The ancient sages say whoever visits the sick (even virtually) takes away one-sixtieth of the illness. Therefore, they say, let 60 people come and visit!

This is what they knew: Personal presence and words have their own healing power. They convey the message: You matter.

But with that comes the stubborn realization that I have been lucky. Not a mile from my home, my Black neighbors are not faring anywhere nearly as well. Or, 10 miles from my home, migrants and prisoners.

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

For me, the plague let up — at least, this time.

May it be true that this plague will stop — this time, for all and forever.

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