Before bed each night, our kids practise their reading, both in Hebrew and in English. We have a routine where I knit and sit next to a kid, listening to him reading his Hebrew Grade 3 stories, and their dad does English with the other kid. Then we switch. Recently, I’ve heard two separate easy-reader versions of the story about Hillel and the mitzvah of cleanliness.
For those of you who might not be up on Grade 3 curriculum, Hillel was a great teacher of Torah. One day, he is rushing off and his students ask him, “Where are you going?” He answers, “To do a mitzvah!” And they say, “What is the mitzvah?” And he says, “Cleaning is a mitzvah!” as he heads to the bathhouse.
In one story, it points out that Hillel was also trying to show that, in general, keeping clean is important. We should clean our fruits and vegetables before eating, clean our bodies, clean our houses, etc. This is obviously a useful lesson for kids. It’s good to know that Hillel taught us to keep clean. (I’ll need to mention this next time I’m asking everyone to tidy up their toys and things!)
Even in the Torah, there are multiple reminders to wash. While this isn’t news for Jews, frequent washing isn’t every culture’s practice. During outbreaks of the Black Death in Europe, Jewish communities were often spared because of their insistence on cleanliness, while those around them were dirty and, therefore, more prone to catching this illness. This meant most Jews avoided the plague (Black Death), which was transmitted by rats and fleas. Unfortunately, this also led to situations in which the Jewish community was blamed for the illness, because why weren’t the Jews getting sick, when everyone else was? Through the lens of history, we know why – they washed and, therefore, had fewer fleas and rats around.
In the Torah portion Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35), G-d tells Moses to construct a fancy washstand for Aaron and his sons in the Tent of Meeting. Essentially, being clean is part of doing holy work.
The weird thing about all this isn’t that our tradition spends a lot of time on how to properly wash and keep clean and, therefore, be ready for holy work. The weird thing is how often we forget to wash despite this information.
The outbreak of COVID-19 (the coronavirus) is a firm reminder of what we can do, every day, to stay well. We can wash our hands, with soap, with some frequency. You can recite the alphabet or the aleph-bet to be sure you’ve washed long enough. Washing well is not some mystical religious ritual. It’s essential to our health and well-being.
We can also practise social distancing, another tradition straight out of the Torah. Lepers had to stay outside the camp for several days, for example. This is not new information, folks! It was old news by the time the rabbis were creating our oral tradition, what became the Talmud.
The advice around a virus outbreak changes every day, so I cannot predict what officials will know or say when this article is published. However, disease outbreaks aren’t new. We’ve been wrestling with how to deal with them for as long as the Jewish people has been around. Considering things like skin diseases and leprosy as part of this, then, as mentioned, there’s information about how to deal with that going to the Torah.
One parallel that I can’t skip is – remember the golden calf? When Moses was getting the Ten Commandments, there was a mad rush to collect valuables and build the golden calf as a way to reassure the scared and frustrated Israelites. But it didn’t turn out so well. Acquiring wealth or idols didn’t help us avoid scary or frustrating things. We can’t know the future and alas, no amount of gold – or toilet paper – can keep us healthy.
The gold calf story reminds me of the reports of preppers, who are madly hoarding hand sanitizer, toilet paper, masks and other essentials. They are afraid, of course, but this illogical amount of acquisition causes shortages. It also gouges others by trying to resell these items at high prices. Of course, medical professionals haven’t advised anyone to do this hoarding – and Moses didn’t tell anyone to build a golden calf either.
We have to rely on the best medical advice we can get and do practical, everyday things to stay safe, like washing and social distancing.
I hope everybody stays healthy, but it would be wrong of me not to do my part in encouraging that. So? In the words of another famous character in our household, Ernie from Sesame Street, “Now everybody wash! Everybody – wash your hands!”
Some things just don’t change.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.