Rabbi Shabbat Sermon 3.13.20

In light of the fact that we will not be holding services these next few weeks in order to be as cautious as possible, I did not want Shabbat to pass without a word of Torah and a way to keep us together as a congregational family, at least in spirit. I want to share with you the words I had prepared for this Shabbat followed by two of the quintessential prayers of our tradition. I wish everyone a healthy and meaningful Shabbat.

A Word of Torah for Shabbat, March 13-14, 2020

As you all know, our congregational trip to Israel had to be cancelled because of the Corona Virus. There were twenty five of us, ready to explore and be awed by our Jewish homeland. Most of the travelers were first timers to Israel. It’s so sad that we are not able to go. Besides the possibility of contracting the virus, the Israeli government enacted a policy of having all travelers to Israel spend two weeks in quarantine before being allowed to visit and tour the country, which of course made even the possibility of continuing our trip impossible. We will, one day soon, reschedule a trip and have that opportunity to visit the Promised Land.

My friends, the Pandemic may never reach us, halavai, but as the Corona virus marches on, it is wise for us to prepare and to take precautionary measures. Part of our preparation is what medical professionals insistently tell us: don’t cough or sneeze on others, wash your hands many times a day. Avoid touching your face, especially your mouth. Stay at home if you’re not feeling well.

By the way, one personal positive by-product of this virus for me is that I stopped biting my nails!!

Anyway, I am not a medical professional, not qualified to give medical advice. I am qualified, however, to give religious advice. It is emotional, spiritual and religious advice is what we especially need during moments of crisis.

The first thing our tradition would tell us is: Do not panic. In a recent Haftarah portion, King Solomon, the wisest of the kings, tells his people to remain calm and sensible during the challenges that confronted Israel.

We are nearing the end of the Book of Exodus and soon to start the Book of Leviticus. So much of the portions that we are currently reading or will be reading in the coming weeks have to do with our bodies and with cleanliness. It happens to be a major topic not only in the Torah but in the Talmud itself. I thought I would share some of what our tradition has to say about hygiene at this time when you can’t even find a bottle of purel on the shelves!

Since the time we were little kids, we were taught to wash our hands before we eat, after using the bathroom, before preparing food, etc. This washing is about physical cleanliness.

As Jews, we are familiar with another kind of washing. We wash “al netilat yadiim” (wash our hands) upon awakening in the morning, before eating bread, and after going to the bathroom, after leaving a cemetery. Although it might seem like these rituals grew out of an impulse for physical cleanliness, the Torah suggests otherwise.

In this week’s portion, we read: “let Aaron and his sons wash their hands and feet from the basin. When they enter the Tent, they shall wash. When they approach to serve, they shall wash.” (Exodus 30:19-20). It is from here that we learn the tradition of netilat yadiim, of ritual cleansing of the hands.

In this scene, Aaron washes his hands as an act of spiritual preparation and purification. Still, there is a relationship between the physical and the spiritual.

Maimonides, a doctor and scholar, made that point explicitly in his code of law, writing, “physical purity leads to spiritual holiness.”

Here is a poignant message from a well-known midrash:

Once when Hillel was walking with his students, they said to him, “Rabbi, where are you going?” He said to them, “To fulfill a commandment!” “What commandment: they asked. He said to them, “To bathe in the bathhouse.” They responded: “But is this really a commandment?” He said to them: “Yes. Just like one who baths and scrubs the statues of kings which are set up in the theaters is rewarded with sustenance and status, I, who was created in the Divine image, all the more so!” (Leviticus Rabbah 43:3).

To care for our body is a mitzvah. It is not only healthy. It is holy. It is how we honor our Creator who fashioned us.

In the 14th century, Europe was struck by the devastating “Black Plague” that is estimated to have killed one-third of the European population, or 25 million people. The Jewish community suffered proportionally fewer casualties, triggering rumors that the plague was the result of an international Jewish conspiracy to poison Christians. Tens of thousands of Jews were massacred to prevent further outbreak of the plague.

There are many theories as to the origin of the Black Plague. All agree that the outbreak was spread by lack of hygiene. It seems that the Jewish communities suffered fewer fatalities, because they maintained better hygiene, because they continually washed their hands and used the mikvah as mandated by specific halachic requirements. In truth, handwashing is just one of several possible factors. But in our own day with the spread of the Coronavirus, we know that handwashing is essential.

And listen to these laws from the Talmud: A person must also wash his hands after touching a part of the body that is “normally” covered. Some authorities require this even if the body part is perfectly clean.

One who touches his scalp or scratches his head must wash his hands.6 In addition, one who touches any footwear must also wash.

Although many of these laws were not necessarily instituted for hygienic purposes, it should come as no surprise that by following God’s rules for living, we can generally maintain the healthiest possible lifestyle in every sense.

Here are some more interesting tidbits from the Talmud:

It is a mitzvah to cut one’s fingernails on Friday in honor of Shabbat, and on erev Yom Tov.

One may not cut nails on Shabbat and Yom Tov, since that is one of the 39 melachot, forms of work. Some have the custom not to cut one’s fingernails on the same day as one’s toenails.

Another mystical source says that it can be harmful for a pregnant woman to walk on a cut fingernail. One should therefore be careful to discard fingernail clippings. If a nail does fall and you cannot find it, just sweep the area.

The habit of nail-biting is discouraged, especially since it may lead to biting fingernails on Shabbat, which is prohibited. So I’m good now!!

It is a mitzvah to take a hot shower on Friday in honor of Shabbat, and on erev Yom Tov. There are a variety of halachic problems associated with showering on Shabbat or Yom Tov, so make sure that you are done well before sunset.

In an expression of mourning over the loss of the Temple, we refrain from bathing for pleasure during the days preceding Tisha B’Av. Bathing for medical purposes or to remove perspiration is permitted, but one should minimize the comfort by limiting the length and warmth of the shower/bath to whatever is necessary.

The Torah dictates the importance of order and precedence in everything that we do in life, even that which appears mundane. When bathing, the head should always be washed first, since it is the preeminent limb. When washing arms or legs, etc, always start with the right one. By giving precedence to the right over the left, we demonstrate that what is important to God is important to us.

A wealth of similar laws and observations are to be found throughout traditional Jewish literature.

And so our tradition is replete with instructions and laws that have to do with the physical and spiritual and view both of them as intertwined.

As we are now in the midst of this terrible pandemic that has touched all of our lives in some way or another, let us follow the teachings of our tradition: Do not panic, use common sense, wash your hands, don’t put yourselves in compromising environments, if you’re not feeling well, stay home and last but not least, may the compromises and decisions you make lead you to a spiritual sense of the goodness and power of life itself!!

Sei Gesund, may we all remain healthy!!!

Rabbi Jeffrey Bennett

As Shabbat ascends upon us, it is traditional to recite the following prayers.