“Parsha and Purpose” – Parshat Vayikra 5780
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha
“Using the Head and the Heart: Addressing Halakhic Challenges in the Age of Corona”
Using the Head and the Heart: Addressing Halakhic Challenges in the Age of Corona
Over the past few days we have received many questions from our rabbinic students and our rabbinic couples who are throughout Europe – questions dealing with the coronavirus.
Questions, for example, from a rabbinic couple who are about to, please God, have a baby. They know it’s a boy. They have a responsibility to their community, but if they stay in their community their child won’t have a brit in its proper time, on the 8th day due to travel restrictions. What are they to do?
Or even more challenging questions, in response to new rules that are in effect in certain areas of Europe, that if someone dies from the coronavirus, the body needs to be cremated. Should tahara, ritually washing the body, be performed even if there is not going to be a proper burial?
Another question arises from the fact that so many of our rabbinic couples are involved in virtual door-knocking, lifting up a phone and talking to shut-ins or people who are quarantined. Our couples are concerned that the people with whom they are in touch are in a depressed state. Are they permitted to call them on Shabbat? Are they permitted to keep their computer on before the holiday of Pesach, and create a Facebook Live Seder, so that those people aren’t alone, since being alone might cause them to be at a certain risk, either psychologically or physically?
These are some of the questions that we have been receiving over the past 72 hours from our Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel rabbinic and educational emissaries throughout the world.
How do we answer such questions? Sefer Vayikra reminds us of the responsibility to create a Mamlechet Kohanim, a community of priests. The book of Vayikra does not just focus on the responsibilities of the Kohen in the Temple, but the responsibilities of the priestly nation, the Jewish people, to create an environment which celebrates the notion of holiness.
It is why, in this book, we are told, Ve’Ahavta le’Reiacha Kamocha, love your neighbor as you love yourself. Kedoshim te’hiyu, we need to be holy, we need to create a holy environment.
This is the message that we need to communicate, to ourselves, and in our case, to our rabbis and educators throughout Europe – the responsibility to be Kadosh, to create holiness, to create new facts on the ground even in challenging times.
Indeed, the unique priestly vestments that the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest wore, give us some intuition and insight that can help us answer these questions.
The Kohen Gadol wore a tzitz on his forehead that said Kodesh la’Hashem, Holy to God, and a breastplate that represented all of the tribes of Israel with one stone representing each tribe. It is a reminder that when the Kohen Gadol answered modern contemporary questions of his time, he needed to first bring his arsenal of Torah knowledge, the tzitz, Kodesh la’Hashem, his holiness to God, into his answer of his question.
But being a person that simply spits out information, or Googles an answer, isn’t sufficient, because we also wear the Choshen, we also wear the breastplate over our hearts, to make sure that any answer to any question has to also contain a psychological understanding of where our people are.
The twelve precious stones, representing the twelve tribes, each has a different color, each has a different breaking point, and we need to recognize that as we answer our halachic questions.
It is the shiluv, it is the blending of the tzitz and the choshen, of the breastplate and the statement that we wear on our foreheads, of being holy to God, that allows us to answer these questions.
Please God, we will answer these questions properly. But we as a community, as we enter the reading of the book of Vayikra, have to understand that it is our responsibility to create holiness in the everyday. God willing, even in this challenging time, we will be able to accomplish that.