Hospitality After Pandemic

Our tradition is brimming with the ideals of hospitality. We are called upon to make room at our Seder tables, throw open our doors, and proclaim “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Our daily prayers reference the welcoming of guests as a holy act. The founders of our people, Abraham and Sarah, throw open their tent to angelic guests – who bring them tidings of a hope-filled future.

Yet over the past two years, this ethos has been tested in the most painful of ways. We could not readily invite someone in without fear of Covid-19 and at times could not even accept the invitation of hospitality, even with careful measures in place to reduce risk. We faced the inversion of a central cultural norm.

The isolation hurt, but so, too did the sense of rejection of our would-be kindness. We could not even open our doors and our arms.

This may be why Parshat Metzora (Leviticus: 14:1 – 15:33), among others in the Book of Leviticus, is filled with such forceful, graphic, specific language about quarantine and social separation during times of plague, notably leprosy. It places public health measures first, even when we are emotionally inclined to be together. It gives us clarity when our emotions might otherwise confuse our priorities.

More subtly, the Torah portion also provides us a path for reconnection and blessing a return to togetherness.

After quarantine is observed for seven days for one who is infected with leprosy, the priestly ritual beautifies the person’s return to the camp emotionally and spiritually. The elaborate ritual, replete with sacrifice, oil, and the blessing of one’s body in a way that parallels that of the installation of a priest (see: Abraham Ibn Ezra on Leviticus 14:14).  A guilt offering is intended to alleviate precisely that feeling among the person who had been separated from the community and to reinstate them with blessing. The priest places blood on the right thumb, the big toe of the right foot, and the right ear – the latter of which is an affirmation of freedom and belonging.

Then, the priest anoints himself with oil – before doing the same to the person who had been in quarantine. This appears to connect the act of blessing oneself and another – and reaffirms the physical safety of being together. It is an initial act of hospitality for the one who had been deprived of it, modeling for others that it is safe to welcome this person into their homes and into their lives.

We do not yet know whether we are done with the Covid-19 pandemic or simply if we are growing more accustomed to its presence and able to counter the effects of the virus. What is evident is that many of us are shifting our attentions back towards relationship, social connection, and hospitality. This can be challenging but is also filled with possibility.

May we delight in homes that are filled with guests – and the chance for us to be guests in others’ homes. May our Seder gatherings overflow with joyful emotion. And may we also hold space to acknowledge that this is no ordinary time of gathering, but one filled with sacred potential to surface our emotions and elevate return through ritual.

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