Persons, things and premises – a Levitical reflection on lockdown

Synagogues are closed so this week’s sermon, like most of this week’s life, is online-only…

“During the emergency period, no person may leave the place where they are living without reasonable excuse.”

Three months ago none of us even dreamt that such a line would ever find its way onto the statute book. Three months ago, barely anyone had heard of Wuhan. But one pangolin and one bat in a city five-and-a-half thousand miles away managed, between them, to create unprecedented restrictions on our liberty here in the UK.

The emergency lockdown regulation, which came into force at 1pm last Thursday, relied on a sweeping power in the Public Health Act for ministers to impose “restrictions or requirements on or in relation to persons, things or premises”. Our religious premises have been closed, our people are being kept at home, and while our things are still more or less intact, the change to the rhythm of our lives is really quite remarkable.

Also really quite remarkable is the symmetry between the Public Health Act and those nasty bits of the Book of Leviticus that we try to gloss over whenever we can. Parashiot Tazria and M’tzora contain detailed regulations for dealing with an outbreak of disease affecting people (m’tzora), things (tzara’at ha-beged) and premises (tzara’at ha-bayit). Infectious or potentially infectious people would be isolated, infected garments destroyed and houses sealed up if they became contaminated. Just as with yesterday’s regulations, there were even punishments for those who broke the rules or refused to submit to testing.

Our current lockdown is extraordinary. And it’s especially telling that, when the Prime Minister announced it on that Monday evening, he identified only four exceptions – food shopping, exercising, providing care and accessing medical support – yet by the time it was turned into law, the list of reasonable excuses had grown to thirteen. He hadn’t thought about women fleeing domestic violence; children who alternate which parent they live with; donating blood. Even now there’s no provision for me to put the bins out, so I might just have to designate my dustbin as a place of worship and rely on my status as a minister of religion – another belated exemption.

The impact, and implications, of the entire population being kept at home for weeks on end is something that nobody really had any grasp of until incredibly recently. No wonder new exceptions keep being conjured up: who ever realised quite how much we depend on leaving our homes until we experiment with staying in them? All those times I was working extended hours and yearned for some time just to do nothing at home, and all of a sudden I have that chance and it’s not so nice after all.

It’s boring.

It’s claustrophobic.

It’s lonely.

It’s tiring.

It’s unhealthy.

It puts strain on relationships.

It’s a terrible working environment.

It’s scary.

On the other hand, though, it’s being part of something bigger: bigger in time and bigger in space. And right now, while we have to pass countless hours with little stimulation, we need to expand the horizons of our time. While trapped indoors, we need to expand the horizons of our space.

Being in a state of hesger, of quarantined isolation, takes us right back to the dawn of the Jewish people. The nasty, gory detail of those endless different types of sore, rash and skin disease are reflections of how our ancestors felt when there was contagion in their midst. For the first time – at least for the first time in my life – these passages are beginning to feel relevant. I’m beginning to sense a connection with the Israelites who, millennia ago, wanted to make sure that every rash got examined, that every infectious garment was destroyed.

Our co-operation with the lockdown also makes us part of something bigger: a complex national and international effort to slow the spread of coronavirus. So few people ever get the chance to save lives by literally sitting on their sofa and doing nothing. So, then, in fact, it’s not doing nothing. It’s saving lives.

Both the biblical measures and Matt Hancock’s regulations are not just about slowing infection but also, and equally importantly, about dispelling stigma and providing a route to normality.

Strange and unfamiliar circumstances cause fear, panic and misgivings. Most of us haven’t quite reached the despicable depths of the Telegraph columnist who declared, “After this, yet ‘Made in China’ be a badge of shame,” but I suspect we have all looked twice at someone who sneezed in our direction on a bus, or at the person buying two bags of pasta at the supermarket.

Society needs a way out, not just from the virus but also from the grasp of popular distrust. Focussing on what is important to us – first and foremost persons, but also things and premises – can lay stones paving a way forward.

As we move towards the strangest Pesach any of us will ever have faced, we recall and relive, and, this year in particular, identify with God’s instruction to our ancestors during the Exodus: “And you, none of you shall go outside the door of your house.”

That instruction, the rabbis tell us, was a recognition of just how deadly the Angel of Death was. Once unleashed upon the world, it would not distinguish between righteous and wicked, but would kill anyone with whom it came into contact. That sounds familiar. But even more familiar is what happens nine verses later: “Up! Leave my people! You, and all the Israelites, go!” The Exodus lockdown was a necessary precursor to true freedom.

This will be the strangest Pesach any of us will ever have faced. It may also be the most accurate, the one closest to the spirit of that original Pesach, when our ancestors cowered indoors in small family groups, before eventually realising and relishing the real value of liberation.

“During the emergency period, no person may leave the place where they are living without reasonable excuse.”

Liberation brings with it the duty to manage our own affairs. Liberation means we have the burden of handling emergencies. For the first time in our lives, it has become necessary to impose restrictions on our persons, our things and our places – and in doing so, we create a better and more free world for the future.

Shabbat shalom, and keep safe.

Further reading

Allison Pearson

Exodus 12:22, 31

Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020

Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020

Leviticus 12:1-15:33

Mechilta d’Rabbi Ishmael, Pisha 11

Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tum’at Tzara’at 10-15

Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984

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