By Rabbi Sonya Starr
Parshat Emor begins by telling Moses to speak to the Kohanim, saying that they should not be defiled by being near any person in their family who has died, with the exception of their immediate family. As a child, I was confused by how they could mourn that way.
It was not until COVID-19 that I had a more complete picture of their grief process. In today’s world, many of us have had to watch funerals or attend shiva minyans over Zoom. We know that during this pandemic only 10 people are allowed to attend a funeral; many have to bring their own shovel and stand apart; no hugging or reaching out to comfort each other. In many ways we are mirroring what the Kohanim throughout the centuries have had to do — mourn from a distance, removed from those whom they love.
Intellectually, I knew that the biblical Kohanim removed themselves from death to not become defiled. A Kohan needed to be ready at a moment’s notice to help the Israelites rectify or enhance their relationship with G-d. Now for the first time, I understand emotionally what that must have felt like.
For in one way or another, we are all mourners during COVID-19. Some of us are mourning the loss of a loved one, others the loss of employment/education, some the loss of security and stability, others the loss of community.
Please do not get me wrong, not all forms of grief are the same nor is it a competition. Few people are weathering this pandemic without some kind of grief, depression, or anxiety.
Elad Nehorai wrote, “All grief is painful. The question is more whether it grows and evolves into trauma or whether it will be healthy grief.” For the first time, I understand the Kohanim believed they were preventing a trauma greater than isolation to visit upon the Israelites. They believed that they could learn how to grieve in a healthy manner rather than be destroyed by that very same grief.
For they, like us, believe the choice we are given is between life and death. By sheltering in place, returning to life slowly, and listening to medical professionals, we too choose life. We forgo the incredible financial security, comfort, and community we crave, to allow life to win over this horrible disease.
As we pray for phase one to begin to close, as we hope that we will not return to sheltering in place anytime soon, let us also remember the Kohanim who knew that choosing a sacred life was worth the alternative.
As many COVID-19 mourners said, even though the mourning process was not what they would have wanted, they still felt loved and supported. They knew they had people they could reach out to. They were not alone. We, like the Kohanim before us, separate ourselves so that our world might be healthier. B’ezrat Hashem, may it come soon.
Rabbi Sonya Starr is the rabbi of Columbia Jewish Congregation.