Ki Tissa 5780 – Holiness or Death

By: Rabbi Michele Sullum

I wanted to be with you this Shabbat.

I wanted to stand shoulder to shoulder with you in prayer.

I wanted to stand before you and look each of you in the eye while I teach.

But I am on immuno-suppressants, which puts me in a high-risk category for infection with COVID 19. So, my doctor told me to stay at home.

But it feels wrong.

Though I’m not, officially, your rabbi, you are still my congregation.

And it doesn’t feel right to set myself apart from my congregation at a time like this.

And it’s not only because I’m a rabbi that it doesn’t feel right to set myself apart from you.

It’s also because I’m Jewish. And Jewish tradition teaches us to do exactly the opposite.

Jewish tradition teaches us:

אל תפרוש מן הציבור.—Al tifrosh min ha’tzibbur.

“Do not set yourself apart from the community.”     (Pirke Avot 2:4)

It teaches us:

כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה.—Kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba-zeh.

“All Jews are connected to one another.”                     (Sanhedrin 27b)

Jewish tradition teaches us to come together in times of trouble—not to stay apart.

But it’s not only because I’m Jewish, that it doesn’t feel right to set myself apart.

It’s also because I’m a human being.

And millions of years of evolution have hard-wired us to feel safer in groups.

We hunt better in groups.

We can gather more food in groups.

We are better able to defend ourselves in groups.

When we band together, we can accomplish things that would be impossible on our own.

And, maybe it also feels wrong because I’m an American. And because I’m now a Texan.

Because Americans are supposed to be tough and independent and free.

We’re a democracy. We choose our behavior. Nobody dictates it to us.

And nobody messes with Texas. Nobody. Certainly not some virus.

So, it goes against nearly every instinct I have as a Jew, as a human being, as an American, and as a Texan to draw myself apart and practice the kind of “social distancing” my doctor and other medical experts say that all of us—not just those of us in the high-risk category—must practice right now. Doing so, they tell us, is the only way to slow the spread of this virus down enough so that our health care system can handle the thousands of people who are likely to get sick—whether they are in the high-risk group or not.

This is the challenge before us as a world community and this is the challenge before us as Jews. So, I would like to offer you—from a distance—some insights from this week’s parasha that may give impetus to our efforts fight our instincts and to set ourselves apart in the days and weeks to come.

In this week’s parasha, Ki Tisa, our ancestors are repeatedly presented with a strange choice:

Holiness or death?

The first instance of this choice comes in the form of a census. Moses is told to count all Israelite men, ages of 20 and above, by collecting half a shekel from each, which will be used in the service of the Mishkan—the Tabernacle. Moses is not to count the men themselves, rather he is to count their donations. These donations, God informs him, will act as a “kofer”—as an atonement for each Israelite’s soul.  Doing this, God explains to Moses, will ensure that no plague will come among the Israelites as they are counted. The implication of this, of course, is that if the Israelites don’t give these 1/2 shekels, there will be a plague among them.

They are offered a choice:

Donate to the Mishkan—holiness.
Or plague—death.

The 2nd such choice is presented specifically to Aaron and his sons, the priests chosen to serve God in the Ohel Mo-ed—the Tent of Meeting. In Shemot chapter 30, verses 19-21, we read:

“Aaron and his sons will wash their hands and feet when they approach the Tent of Meeting. They will wash with water and they will not die. Or, when they approach the altar to serve, to make an offering to God, they will wash their hands and feet and they will not die. This will be an eternal statute for them and for their children.”

And so, Aaron and his sons are also offered the choice:

Wash your hands and feet with water before approaching God—holiness.

Or don’t—death.

We see the 3rd such choice just a few verses later, when God gives Moses two proprietary recipes to be used in the service of the Tabernacle.

  • The first recipe is for the anointing oil that will be used to sanctify the Tabernacle and its vessels as well as the priests who will serve there.
  • The second recipe is for the incense that will be burned just outside the Tent of Meeting.

These recipes, Moses is told are “kodesh kodashim” the most sanctified of all holy things, because their power renders other things holy. Nobody is to use them for personal purposes: as a body lotion, for example, or to make their tent smell good. Anyone who does so will suffer from “karet.” His or her soul will be cut off from the rest of the nation—a fate which some rabbis claimed was worse than death. For, while death kills the body, it doesn’t harm the soul. In contrast, having one’s soul cut off from the nation might leave one’s body intact, but it denies one’s soul a place in the olam haba—in the world to come—which means that one’s soul loses the chance to unite with God for eternity after one’s body expires. (Rambam, Hilchot Teshuvah 8:1)

So, again, we see the people being presented with the same choice:

Use these sacred recipes for their intended purpose—holiness.

Or use them for personal use—death.

The 4th and final choice placed before the people is Shabbat. In chapter 31, verse 12, after describing all of the sacred vessels that are to be created for use in the Tabernacle, God tells Moses:

“But you shall speak to the children of Israel, saying to them: Nevertheless you will keep my Shabbat, for it is a sign between myself and you for all the generations, so that you will know that I am Adonai who sanctifies you. And you will guard my Shabbat for it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it will die. Anyone who engages in creative activity will find his or her soul cut off from the nation.”

That strange use of that word “nevertheless,” means that it wasn’t enough for the people of Israel to set apart the Tabernacle, its vessels, its priests, its oil, and its incense as holy. They also had to set aside the Shabbat. In doing so, God explains to Moses, the Israelites would also be setting themselves apart as a holy people. Doing otherwise would have drastic consequences. And so, the choice is presented a 4th time:

Observe Shabbat—holiness.

Don’t observe Shabbat—suffer not just death and not just karet, but both.

Why were these choices presented in such stark terms? Why is the flip side of holiness—of connecting with divinity—the absence of life itself? Why not present the people with some level of choice between these two extremes?

Because the reality is that sometimes there isn’t a level between the two.

When the power one is facing is the power of creation, sometimes that power leaves no middle ground.

Sometimes the absence of creation begets destruction. Other times the opposite occurs.

Other times, it is the very existence of creation which begets destruction.

Such is the power of creation. Such is the power of the holy.

And that is the power we face right now.

This new Coronavirus that we face is a brand-new creation. As a new creation it has a level of holiness and power that presents a danger to the unprotected. As such, the restrictions that will be placed upon us as we deal with it are going to need to be especially stringent. Just look at our parasha if you doubt me.

The divine restrictions described in our parasha this week weren’t put into place to protect the holy items of the Tabernacle so that the Israelites wouldn’t profane them with everyday use. They were put into place to protect the Israelites from the immensity of their power.

And the observance of Shabbat wasn’t just a nice idea to make the Israelites special. It was protection for the Israelites so they wouldn’t be physically or spiritually destroyed by the power of God’s attention. Likewise, God’s instruction to the priests regarding washing with water before serving in the Tabernacle—a practice that our medical professionals have told us is crucial to preventing the spread of this virus—though, obviously, we should also use soap.

A teacher of mine at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. Dov Zlotnick, once posed the following question to us: “What makes something holy?” he asked.

His answer: “The level of restrictions placed around it.”

When I saw that a notice had come out from my M.S. clinic saying that the time had come for the immuno-compromised to stay home, I was ready to dismiss their recommendation in favor of going to shul.

I was ready to take the risk to myself, which I judged to be fairly low.

But the notice went on to ask that we patients consider the risk not only to ourselves but to those whose care could be compromised by our choices. Since those of us in the high-risk group already know we are likely to need hospital care if we are infected, choosing to take a risk may mean we are choosing that someone else who needs care might not get it.

The notice asked us to consider the possibility that, just as we have seen in happen in Asia and Europe, our hospitals, urgent care clinics, and doctors’ offices may soon be overwhelmed by the numbers of the sick and the dying.

The notice informed us that the resources needed to treat severe infections of COVID 19 are too scarce for the numbers of patients they are expecting and urged us to understand that the best, and most effective way for us to help out in this time of crisis is to stay home and stay healthy.

And so, I stayed home from shul today. Because if choosing to risk myself means that I may be choosing also to let someone else die, then following my clinic’s recommended restrictions is the holiest choice I can make right now. It is the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh—saving a life.

And this isn’t just true for me because I’m in a high-risk group. It’s true for all of us.

  • Because a lot of us are going to get infected with this virus, even though most of us won’t die from it.
  • And a lot of those who become infected are going to get very sick—high-risk group or not—even though many of us won’t.

And the best and most effective way for all of us to help those who are going to get sick, and those of us who are going to be caring for those who get sick, is to do everything in our power to stay well and to try to slow the rate of infection down, so that when we or our loved ones do get sick, our health care system has the resources and the capacity to help us.

So, I urge you to embrace these new restrictions to our lives right now as holy—just as holy as the decision to give tzedakah, to keep Shabbat or to keep kosher.

Because today, a new creation in this world has placed a choice before us:

Between risk and safety; between holiness and death.

Between the blessing of healing or the curse of turning the sick away.

And so, I urge you, today, to choose holiness and life—for you, for your family, for your neighbors and your friends, and for the people whom you’ve never met whom your choice might save. Choose life so that we all may live.

Shabbat Shalom