Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Achrei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16-20)Our Natural Habitat

The authors of Pandemics and the Great Evolutionary Mismatch  discuss a scientific conundrum inherent in social distancing. Although social distancing is effective in slowing the spread of the disease, history and neuroscience have shown that in times of crisis, people do best when they have social interactions as a support system. When you remove that option, people have a much more difficult time managing. The obvious difference between COVID and past pandemics is that we now have technology allowing us to communicate and socially interact without having to interact physically. One reader insightfully summarized that before COVID, people who communicated through social media and other technology (rather than in-person), were considered anti-social. Now this has become a critical tool in allowing people to have social interactions without physical interaction.The Torah uses the following language to tell us not to follow the ways of the other nations: Like the practice of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelled, you shall not do, and like the practice of the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you, you shall not do, and you shall not follow their statutes. (Lev. 18:3) Why are Egypt and Canaan isolated as the places to make sure we don’t follow their practices? Also, why the extra detail that we had dwelled in Egypt and were heading towards Canaan? Both pieces of information are obvious to anyone familiar with the story—we even mention them at the Passover Seder. One commentary (Aruch l’Ner in Minchas Ani) suggests that at this period of time, the Jewish people faced two different challenges. The first, habit; the second, dealing with the new reality. Jews had been in Egypt for hundreds of years and had grown accustomed to a certain amount of unbecoming behavior. Everyone is affected by their surroundings and the Jews had picked up some habits from Egyptian culture they would need to discard. The second challenge was change. When they enter the Land of Israel, populated by the Canaanite nations, there will be a new reality. They will see new practices and might want to incorporate them into their own lives. The Torah separates Egypt from Canaan because both types of challenges need to be dealt with. We get stuck in bad habits and add on new ones that we never knew existed. Life is a marathon of trying to shed old, poor habits and also developing a plan to deflect the new ones. In the early stages of COVID, there was a lot of speculation about what a post-coronavirus world will look like. Which aspects will go back to the way they were and which will undergo change? Communication is one of the most relevant areas we are addressing when answering this question. Will face-to-face meetings be permanently replaced by Zoom? Will other types of social events be held online? This crisis has exposed us to some bad habits related to staying home all day. But let’s not forget about some wonderful behaviors (i.e. habits) we did in our pre COVID world. As Jews, we made shiva visits in person rather than on Zoom. During the pandemic we had no choice, but it’s a bad habit to develop if it isn’t necessary and we shouldn’t allow it to come to our post COVID world. Some have said that mourners will continue to have Zoom hours for those who are distant and this is a great solution that we learned from the new reality. However, we shouldn’t forget that pre COVID, people would drive 90 minutes or more to comfort people sitting shiva. If we live 40 minutes away, we have to be careful not to use it as an excuse to avoid a personal visit. So, too, with hospital visits and countless instances of sticking with our COVID habits. It was easier to attend daily services or classes on zoom rather than in shul or in person but can one really compare a zoom encounter to a personal meeting? We continue to pray to the Almighty for the end of this pandemic and to be granted the wisdom to filter the good habits from bad ones as we approach this new reality.