Tazria Metzora Shabbat Rosh Chodesh 5780

The Enemy Is Us

Israel like many nations is in lock-down. We do venture out of our homes to acquire food, medication or medical attention. After so many weeks we have adapted to these limitations on our movement and quarantine has become somewhat more bearable thanks to Zoom, Skype and other technologies.

The Torah reading for this Shabbat encompasses chapters that focus upon individuals afflicted with tzara’at, commonly translated as leprosy. While the nature of the disease is not certain it was highly feared as infectious, and diagnosed individuals were placed in quarantine. Today we are plagued with COVID-19, the extremely  infectious virus that is hopefully being managed with the fourteen-day isolation of individuals diagnosed with the disease and the social distancing measures imposed by law.

In this context, that this past Tuesday we observed the annual Holocaust Memorial Day. The road to Auschwitz was paved by a social virus: the Nazi fixation on Aryan purity and the irrational conviction that Jewish inferiority was contagious and a threat to society. This virus nourished by Antisemitism led to the Nuremberg laws, the isolation of Jews, and the many restrictions on Jewish movement and normal existence were a prelude to the barbarity and genocide of Auschwitz. The ultimate goal was to create a world order that was Judenrein, cleansed of the virus of the Jew. In reality, however, the virus was the Aryan insistence of its racial superiority and the threat “outsiders” posed to its perfect society.

The current pandemic is a reminder that viruses are communicable, and when not controlled afflict any and all. This is true regarding Antisemitism as well as all populist perceptions of outsiders whether ethnic, racial, religious or foreign-born as being inferior and a threat to creating and preserving the perfect society.

Pogo was a daily comic strip syndicated to American newspapers from 1948 until 1975. Set in the Okefenokee Swamp in the southeastern United States, it chronicled the adventures of Pogo, an opossum, and the many other t denizens of the swamp. The strip satirized the human condition as well as McCarthyism, communism, segregation, and, eventually, the Vietnam War. It’s probably best remembered today for Pogo’s environmentalist lament, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

No society is as healthy as it would wish. The inevitable viruses that threaten our physical health often respond to the vaccines and medications that are created and developed in our ongoing and often very frustrating war with Mother Nature. Vaccines that immunize against the social viruses that demonize and target members of other social, ethnic, racial, religious or political entities sadly continue to elude us. The source of this virus is “us.”

The prime defense against COVID-19 is social distancing. Separating ourselves from others reduces the rate of infection, flattens the curve and hopefully creates relatively safe space as we await the new vaccine. Neutralizing the social virus, however, requires opening ourselves up to the many “others” in our midst. It’s a formidable challenge to overcome the human tendency to erect and maintain walls of separation and segregation that reinforce the demonization, prejudice and discrimination that are the source of much of the violence and instability that threaten our society’s well-being.

Whenever we lapse into perceiving the outsider as a virus threatening the health of our society, it is constructive to recall Pogo’s ever relevant observation, “We have met the enemy and he is us!”

From the holy city of Jerusalem my best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach, a Shabbat of peace and blessing, and Chodesh Tov, a month blessed with good tidings.

Rabbi Arnold M. Goodman
Senior Rabbinic Scholar