Acharei Mot- Kedoshim: The Center of The Center

As the COVID-19 global pandemic continues and both the death toll and unemployment levels rise, many believe that this disruption is a small, but deep pothole and that we will get back to trucking along in short order.  In my experience, there is nothing further from the truth.  We are in for a very long haul and it will get way worse before it gets better.  I know because I’ve seen it before. 

When Hurricane Katrina, a class five monster storm, came ashore on August 29, 2005, it became the costliest storm in US history with over 125 billion dollars in damage and killing more than 1,200 people. The deluge destroyed over 90,000 square miles of American territory — that’s roughly the size of Great Britain.  The meteorological force of Katrina lasted just 72 hours, but the economic, social and spiritual effects lasted years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment soared in Louisiana and Mississippi, topping out around 25 percent in the months after the storm.  While these numbers settled in the following months, what was left of the community, both physically and mentally, was a landscape of devastation I had never seen. Essentially we lost a country inside our country.   

We’re seeing a version of this happening again during the Coronavirus pandemic. While reports are conflicting, according to the New England Journal of Medicine, the first case of COVD-19 appears to have been reported on January 20, 2020.  As of today, the Center for Disease Control reports nearly one million cases of the virus, including more than 55,000 deaths.  Unemployment is skyrocketing. In LA County, where I live, some experts believe that the unemployment rate could climb to 32 percent by May and will keep rising.  Let’s call this pandemic what it is, a natural disaster. 

After college, I spent some time in Africa volunteering to help build a school and at various other times, I volunteered to help in impoverished and vulnerable communities.  It’s part of my calling as a man of faith.  When I was asked by the New York Board of Rabbis if I was interested in pastoring a small community in Biloxi Mississippi,  Congregation Beth Israel, I jumped at the chance. The first time I arrived in Gulfport by plane, the airport barely had a roof.  The aluminum ceiling had been sheared off in sections by the storm.  A congregant picked me up in his car and drove me around town showing me the neighborhood.  As we got closer to the coast, I saw the level of destruction worsen.  Street after street was empty.  There were no houses. There were no stores.  There were no churches.  There were no street signs.  I remember clearly driving down what had once been a tree-lined lane and now appeared as a strange strip of concrete with the occasional staircase rising from the earth to meet a phantom porch of a missing house. As barren and bad as it was, the community was past the event of the storm. It was rebuilding, clearing rubble and mold, and trying to get economic, social and spiritual engines revving again.  

Here’s where it’s different now. We haven’t lost houses or stores or trees.  The roads are empty, but not because they’ve been plowed under by the ocean.  They are empty because this disaster does not attack infrastructure; it attacks us and it is still unfolding. There’s no “getting over the storm” or “getting back on our feet” because the pandemic persists until enough testing and tracing can be put in place. Katrina lasted 72 hours plus a few weeks of persistent floods, yet its impact lasted decades. Now, there is no clear end in sight, and just when we can go back to work, the real years-long project of rebuilding our lives and dealing with our trauma will only have just begun. 

My time in Mississippi taught me many things, like how wonderful people can be, and how long it takes for wounds both physical and mental to heal. Many experts, in the wake of Katrina, were able to detect a four-phased pattern of behavior over a multi-year period that I think still resonates with the pandemic we are experiencing today. These phases are called
1) Heroic/Historic phase where the event unfolds and participants take extraordinary actions to save lives.  2) Honeymoon phase where social solidarity is at its highest feeling connected to a singular attention-grabbing event. 3) Disillusionment phase when a malaise of guilt and trauma set in, breaking social bonds and norms. 4) Reconstruction phase, when the physical and emotional trauma can be addressed. While I am writing a longer article about these phases, what I can say is that during this pandemic we are cycling through these phases because the event is ongoing.  Some are being heroic (staying home, working in a clinic), some are being overly cautious and kind, some have let the trauma grab hold of them, and some are trying to heal through various forms of therapy.  The path to recovery is not linear; we risk more than anything falling into a vicious pain-cycle that builds trauma upon trauma, tearing ourselves apart. 

One of the many tools we used to provide restorative care during Katrina was Torah study.  For those who find solace in the sacred texts, opening the book and finding yourself inside of it helps bring to the surface many of the most difficult and vivid emotions of trauma.  Imagine how a Katrina victim feels about the Noah story, or the mold that grows upon the house.  Imagine what Elijah’s drought means to a farmer who lost everything.  Imagine what studying the texts of failing bodies can do for those who are going through this pandemic. When you find yourself in the Book of Books, and you find this book in you, its stories and adages are, as our rabbis have taught, “Our life; the path of our days.” It is the Book of Life.   

And so when we arrive, as we do this week, in Parsha Acharei Mot-Kedoshim at the center of Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, we arrive at the center of the center — into the eye of the storm itself.  Leviticus is the most healing book of the Bible.  It deals with trauma more than any other section of the Torah because no other text in the Bible deals so directly with the fragility of life in what can feel like an uncaring world. When bodies break, when pain throttles our souls, when failure is internalized, when we mess up and our conscience gnaws at us, Leviticus is here to heal.  

The basic thesis of Leviticus is that you are not alone in your feelings of shame and guilt — in your feelings of joy and well being.  God shares these feelings with you; the altar is where you come to place the most vivid parts of your life.  At the center is the Holiness Code, a doctrine of ethics that guides your life to its highest aspirations under the rubric of universal love.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18). The command to love is found in the center.  Yale professor and theologian Nicholas Woltersorff writes in Justice and Love, “it is unexpected and surprising” that the love command follows here.  “We are to treat each human being as our moral counterpart.” That is, one could expect this commandment to be the first commandment in the Holiness Code as a sort of working title, but it is not — it is found at its center.  What precedes and follows are commandments to care for the poor, the old, and the stranger — the idea being that ethical behavior is rooted in a virtuous cycle of mutual love.  When someone shows you kindness and acts out of love, you can feel worthy of love.  Those who feel loved have the capacity to share love with others, especially those who might not feel that way (the poor, the stranger, the forgotten). This pattern and cycle of love heals trauma in ourselves and others, pushing us higher and higher towards holiness.

At the center of Torah is Levitius, at the center of Leviticus is the Holiness Code, and at the center of the code is an unending pattern and cycle of love. 

The center of the center is love.

As this disaster continues and these cycles of heroism and disillusionment set in, the Torah is here to help you remember that you are loved and have the capacity to love.  The reinforcing rituals of Leviticus teach us that when we experience trauma, when we feel the pain of life well up inside of us, when we feel the rage against uncertainty, when we feel the shame of loss or the guilt of prosperity, there is a place to put those feelings and purge them in holy fire.  God’s altar is there not for God’s sake but for yours. It is a place to break the dark cycle of pain and restart the bright cycle of love. To understand how to heal, you can go to the very center of the center — the place of sacred love. 

Stay home, stay safe, stay healthy and stay loving.

Shabbat Shalom 

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