As we find ourselves facing increasing physical isolation from one another during the COVID 19 pandemic, I have been forced to reevaluate how I spend my time in meaningful ways. Only a few weeks ago, my alone time was a means to an end- preparing myself for the opportunities and obligations with and in front of others. I measured whether or not I had a “good day” by how many people I had met, how many meetings I had attended, how much preparation I had completed for meetings, classes, and rituals. With so many of these measures now unavailable or virtual, I realize that new measures are needed to evaluate how well I am spending my time.
In this week’s parsha, Tzav, I find some guidance in making this shift. Our portion this week addresses the technicalities of several sacrifices, managing impurity laws around sacrifices, and focuses intensely on how those offerings are shared with the priests who make them and the Levites who help keep the Tabernacle running. We also witness the ordination of Aaron and his sons, who are commanded to spend their ordination period within the Tent of Meeting (Tabernacle) and not go out, a total of seven days in isolation.
What is the purpose of this isolation? The most obvious explanation is to ensure Aaron and his sons would be ritually pure upon completion of their ordination. This is similar to the laws concerning the High Priest before the Yom Kippur offerings, when he would be kept sequestered for a week before going into the Holy of Holies in the center of the Tabernacle so that there was no risk of ritual impurity.
Multiple commentators express doubt that this isolation was constant- Ibn Ezra in particular (12th century Spain) assumes that Aaron and his sons were only restricted from leaving during the day, but were permitted to go about personal business at night. The idea that anyone would be left in isolation in a holy place was difficult for them to accept.
Were we not in the midst of our own commanded isolation, I might not have made any note of this instruction beyond Ibn Ezra’s commentary either. Yet, at a time where I struggle to find structure and meaning in my day to day at home on my own, I cannot help but be drawn to this facet of the ordination process. Isolating Aaron and his sons is a powerfully intentional act- they must be kept seperate to ensure they can serve their people, as the first representatives in a chain of responsibility that still impacts our traditions and practices to this day.
The challenge of remaining separate is bound inextricably to the obligation and opportunity of serving the Jewish people. Physical distancing is, even in the ancient practices of our tradition, an act of elevation with proper intention. Isolation is difficult, even painful at times- in any other circumstances our instinct would be to leave the house, make a minyan, visit the sick, comfort the mourner, to make our mark in the world by being in it.
However today, and for the immediate future, the best expression of our concern and faith is to be like Aaron and remain separate to serve our people more fully. The time will come again when the best mode of care and compassion is the hug, the visit, the sharing of space. But for now, let us see our separation as an act of holy concern, emulating the process of our ancestors in best serving our communities through separation.
Be safe, be well, and know that our distance is only physical.
Rabbi Herschel “Brodie” Aberson