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Parsha Emor | COVID promises an “eye for an eye”

Tourists wearing masks in Singapore during COVID 19 pandemic
Photo by Victor He on Unsplash

Explore Jewish heritage with an amateur Jew’s commentary on Parsha Tazria-Metzora, Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23. Click here to read the previous portion, Parsha Achrei-Kedoshim.

The longer I follow the weekly Torah portion, the more likely I’m to read something between the lines and instinctually interpret a piece of text. This isn’t necessarily always a good thing. Sometimes bullshit is just bullshit, no matter how you dress it. Pulling meaning out of nothing can be a tiresome, pompous task. I did it in art class years ago when my teacher liked my work and asked me for the story behind it.

“Do you want me to tell you I just made it because it was the assignment or do you want me to make up a story about what inspired me?” I asked.

Fortunately, she was great and played along.

“The story,” she said.

I’m giving this setup because the text that spurred a seemingly disconnected thought seems pretty straightforward and beyond interpretation. Perhaps it is and it is, indeed, bullshit that I’ve come up with. Anywho, here’s the text:

“No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Lord’s ofering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God. He may eat of the food of his God, of the most holy well as of the holy; but he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the Lord have sanctified them.”

At face value, it sounds like this “Lord” fellah is being a dick––again. If I read this with the same eyes I had on when I started reading Torah, I’d stick with the snark and move on.

To be fair, there’s a lot to be snarky about. First of all, these frequent use of the word “defect” seems harsh. Like, aren’t we all made in Your image, dude? Maybe you’re defect, asshole, ever think of that?

But reading this text brought me back to conflict field training in Costa Rica. (I know that’s a hell of a segue, but stick with me.) One of the professors was an active soldier in the Dutch military. He had, in military parlance, seen some shit.

Among our various exercises, we had to learn how to get injured colleagues (we were acting as journalists in a conflict zone) out of a dangerous situation. But a point he continually emphasized was that we have to take care of ourselves first. If we’re injured or incapable of helping the colleague, it’s possible our actions would only make things worse and possibly hurt ourselves in the process.

I agree, “defect” sounds awfully harsh, but I have to constantly remind myself that this is a translation. Perhaps “defect” simply means “something wrong,” which is softer and can mean you have a twisted ankle or something. In that case, the text sounds like an affirmation of taking care of yourself first and foremost, because if you’re not well, you’re not going to be able to do anything that will better yourself or the people around you.

This is an obviously timely lesson to re-learn during the pandemic. Unfortunately, not everyone is willing to listen. Some governments and businesses are rushing to get things back to normal even as we’re warned by scientists that there are still “defects” that’ll prevent that from happening anytime soon. Ignoring that warning is likely to hurt more people and potentially make things even worse in the long run. And that brings me to the other text that stuck out in this Parsha, one you’re probably already loosely familiar with:

“If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him.”

Rabbis later interpreted the “harm” as financial damage, not actual physical damage. Nobody was thinking that if you get kicked in the nuts, you could kick the kicker right back––no matter how satisfying that might be with some people.

So that’s what has me worried. If we’re going to rush into ending this lockdown, even as we’ve still got shit to work out, how are we going to get hit back? Will a second wave hit back as quickly as we’ve tried to end the lockdown? Will that be our “eye for an eye”?

Whatever happens, I bet we’d all like to kick COVID in the nuts right about now.

Onward with Parsha Behar-Bechukotai.

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