What Does the Torah Teach Us about Social Distancing?

July 9, 2020Rabbi Wendy Pein

During the quarantine, our lives have been turned upside down. If we are fortunate to have remained healthy (and this qualifier is not to be taken for granted nor preclude us from acknowledging the severity of the pandemic and its devastating impact on others), our lives were initially consumed with staying informed about the pandemic, protecting our health, and learning how to procure basics such as food without the risk of becoming infected with COVID-19. We may also have needed to tend to the immediate needs of others such as children or elderly relatives.

The quarantine caused us to retreat into our homes, which at first seemed unnatural. How could we not visit extended family? Friends? Shop in stores? However, after months of quarantine and physical distancing, our isolation has become more routine. We have learned, albeit with challenges, to procure the basics and meet many of our needs in new ways. With digital technology we have also found substitutes that have enabled us to learn and socialize virtually.

Yet the Torah reminds us that individualism and isolation are not the ideal state of being. In Genesis Chapter 2, humankind begins with the creation of a single individual, “the Lord God formed the first person from the dust of the earth…God blew into one’s nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). Next, God creates the Garden of Eden and places humankind in it “to till and tend it” (Genesis 2:15). At this point in this story, there is no mention of companionship nor does Adam request it. Instead, it is God who states, “It is not good for Adam to be alone… “(Genesis 2:18).

This judgement comes from God, not humankind. One can surmise that Adam got used to living alone, having the Garden all to oneself, and started to like it. However, through the Torah, God guides us away from isolation toward the value of social interaction, toward deriving enjoyment and value from interacting with others.

The Torah is filled with timeless wisdom – but the commandments do not typically direct us to do the obvious (as taught to me by HUC-JIR professors, including Dr. David Sperling). The Torah does not include laws such as, “You should feed your newborn child.” Rather, the Torah instructs us to subvert natural inclinations. The Torah reminds us to be generous. The Torah teaches us to be truthful. The Torah reminds us not to work too hard. And the Torah instructs us to live within a community.

Within the Book of Leviticus, there is a section called the Holiness code, Leviticus 17 – 27, which instructs us toward holy behavior through our everyday interactions with one another. Treat one another fairly in business. Do not rebuke one another. Remember to help provide for the poor and the stranger.

This section begins with God instructing Moses to speak to the Israelites and to impart this commandment, “Kedoshim T’hiyu… You shall be holy” (Lev. 19: 1-2). The "you" is stated in the form of the plural, meaning all of you, the entire Israelite community, thereby revealing that the ideal state to achieve holiness is through community, not individually. The Torah’s vision is for us to live inter-connectedly, to inspire one another to rise above our inclined behaviors, so that together, we elevate one another.

It is a poignant reminder that living apart, which has been necessary during this pandemic, is not the ideal state for humankind and does not lead to fulfillment.

Although we may y have become habituated to living in isolation and social distancing, the Torah reminds us about the importance of community. It instructs us to live in community so that we may inspire one another to live according to higher ethical and moral principles. Our challenge today is to not become too accustomed to our social distancing ways, even while practicing safety and physically distancing, and instead actualize our potential for holiness through community, both during this pandemic and, eventually, thereafter.

For more on this topic, visit our page COVID-19: Judaism Under Quarantine and subscribe to This Week in Jewish Life, our Friday email newsletter.

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