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Quarantines, physical and emotional

The conditions for quarantine are clearly set forth in the Torah, but what is supposed to happen if one is in a state of quarantine? On this, the Torah is more or less silent. Quarantine slips in and out of the Biblical narrative, as its different forms slip in and out of our own lives. What is the message? What is one supposed to do if one  is suddenly shut away from normal existence?

Perhaps the most well known Biblical instance of quarantine is set forth in Leviticus 13 and 14. A person who is plagued with certain skin disfigurations is sent out of the Biblical encampment. The traditional explanation for the severe punishment is symmetrical: the quarantined person spoke ill of others, in effect cutting them off from their friends or family by damaging their reputation; so his punishment is to be cut off from society for a prescribed period. But again, what is the quarantined offender supposed to do as he (or she) is cut off?

The Biblical text is long — very long — on the ritual procedures required for reentry into society, but pretty much silent on the period of quarantine itself. One would expect the Torah to address the recurring human condition of radical alienation.

Quarantine reappears in the Torah. At the beginning of the book of Numbers, the ritually impure are expelled from the camp to prevent them from rendering others impure through touch or other conveyances (Numbers 5:2-4).

Similarly, in Numbers 12, no less than Miriam, the sister of Moses, is quarantined outside the camp for seven days. The people respectfully wait for her banishment to be complete before journeying forth. But what of Miriam? What was her job while she was quarantined? What was her purpose there? 

A careful reading of the biblical narratives reveals a searing distinction: Some instances of quarantine are the result of sin, but some are not. It is a sin to speak ill of others — such as in Leviticus and in the case of Miriam, who spoke ill of her brother — but becoming impure is, per se, not necessarily a result of sin. 

Here, I think, we reach the Biblical message. Whether one is expelled from human contact for cause or not for cause, the quarantine is very difficult to face up to.

We are all quarantined at one time or another. We fall ill. We fall out with a friend or, worse, with a spouse. We lose our livelihood and now live in an alien economic context. We are pinned down by circumstances beyond our control — a pandemic, for example. Less severely but still disturbingly, the weather cancels our flight and we miss the family wedding. Or, our interests change: we put years into securing a graduate degree but realize it’s not for us and need to start over. 

The modern forms of quarantine are many, and the same silence that seems to emerge from the Biblically quarantined person envelops us too. As we are cut off, what are we supposed to do? Why does the Torah not provide guidance?

Perhaps the Torah’s message is this: It is excruciatingly difficult to attribute an isolating fate to anything we ourselves have done. I got sick — this was my fault? I fell out with a friend, or a spouse — what do you want from me? I lost my money — but I wasn’t dishonest! Bad fortune may be just that. 

However, there is also the possibility that the Biblical silence on the task of the quarantinee (if I may use that awkward word) stems from the impossibility of devising a one-size-fits-all approach. 

Quarantine is so severe, so irregular, that the best guidance as to how to cope with it must come from within. G-d’s guidance is absent because we must turn to our own inner strength; certainly with the help of close friends, family or advisers if available, but even then, the Biblical silence points essentially to our inner resources.

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IJN Executive Editor | [email protected]

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