24/25 April 2020, 30 Nisan/1 Iyar 5780

Rabbi Rebecca writes:

This week is Tzaria-Metzora, the double portion of the Leviticus describing infectious disease. It couldn’t resonate more strongly.

I love the way we are all trying to make sense or learn from what is happening. Why wouldn’t we search the past and literature for echoes?

In 1947, having just emerged from fighting in the World War II French underground, Albert Camus completed and published his novel, The Plague (La Peste).

The story creates and imagines a contemporary-day outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in a small and rather ordinary Algerian town, Oran. The hero, Dr Rieux, looks after the victims every day, until the disease passes, after many, many have died.

So Dr Rieux’s tale, the book concludes, “could not be one of final victory. It could be only the record of what had to be done and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never-ending fight against terror… by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.” (My italics)

The message of the book is bleak but uplifting; the plague never dies, really, and with people, “There are more things to admire than to despise.”

How can this not sound familiar? Especially when Camus describes a city overrun, hospitals running out of beds and health care workers lacking basic equipment, and larger spaces required for the dying and then dead.

I studied La Peste in French class at school when I was 16. I was moved then and I am moved now. But more so by the backdrop of rereading this. And that it’s true with people, “There are more things to admire than to despise.” And it’s true that many of us, not just our doctors, nurses and carers, by refusing to to bow down to pestilences strive their utmost to be healers.

There is nothing romantic about what we are going through now. At the beginning we thought ‘we were in this together’ but time has confirmed that is not so. There is a palpable difference between those on lower incomes bearing the virus. Quarantine in a garden with rooms for all the family is a far cry from what many are experiencing. But all is relative.

For many, it has brought out unusual resilience and kindness, and a desire to reach out. Camus’s observation of life in quarantine resonates but so does his observation  when the plague ends that all people crave ‘human love’. I’m determined to capture that craving for ‘human love’ and make it a palpable through acts of kindness and public calls for  justice.

That is what I am thinking on now.

Rabbi Rebecca