A number of years ago, I came across a very nerdy website that, through an illustrated sliding scale, showed the scale of the universe – from the tiniest quarks to the widest expanse containing a near infinite amount of galaxies. I loved looking at that website, where physics and metaphysics seemed to blend together. It was a healthy dose of perspective; a recalibration of our very humble place in our Cosmos, like mites floating in a sunbeam and inhabiting this beautiful planet of ours, as the late and great Carl Sagan put it, this ‘pale blue dot’.
You can still visit this website today (I will provide links to those of you who want to read or reference this sermon at a later point) and I find myself thinking of this website again in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic that is angrily raging across our planet. For instance, I learned that the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is 80-160 nanometer in size. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter—something that it is very, very small!
How can such a tiny thing cause such great suffering and upheaval?
While science may help lift the veils of our ignorance and solve many mysteries, it does not bleed the mystical from our lived experience. If anything, looking at photos of the Hubble Space Telescope or studying the website that shows the scale of the Universe, is just as much a reckoning with Divinity, or an act of worship, as studying sacred text, reciting the liturgy and engaging in acts of service and loving-kindness.
In this pandemic crisis today, we are confronted with that paradoxical relationship between the great and the small, the natural and the Divine, between science and religion. We are confronted with forces unseen that can only be met by the strength of invisible bonds. The street, the marketplace—all our places of gathering and civic engagement, are encroached by an unsettling sense of ‘tumah’, impurity. Like the Priests of yore, we wash our hands and purify ourselves. Like Kohanim, our healthcare workers on the frontline enshroud themselves in holy garb – masks, shields, gowns, gloves – and like the etymology of the word ‘holy’, ‘kadosh’, meaning ‘set-apart’, they can only safely execute their holy duties by being set apart—from the virus most of all.
We are now approaching the Levitical heart of the Torah. Only a few chapters away from Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus, our double portion of Vayakhel-Pekudei already forebodes the intensely structured ritual of Vayikra. The portion describes the minutiae of what it takes to operate the sacrificial cult, from the construction of the Tabernacle to the ritual garb of the Kehunah, the Priesthood. Yet, these things are not disconnected from normal life, from the processes that keep society operational. We read about Betzalel, son of Uri, son of Hur from the tribe of Judah, and his collaborator, Oholiab son of Ahisamach, from the Tribe of Dan. Both men are imbued with ‘chochmah’, Divine wisdom, as they create the sacred implements that keeps the Cosmos bound together. Betzalel is of aristocratic lineage, from the largest and most powerful tribe, while Oholiab is of humble origin, from the smallest and least significant tribe. In this day, when we exalt and trust the urgent information of calm and articulate experts, while at the same time relying on the humble, unseen but essential service of ordinary workers – stocking our depleted shelves, disinfecting public spaces, aiding the operation of hospitals, bringing comfort to the ill, suffering and bereaved – we are reminded that we need both Betzalels and Oholiabs to fight this pandemic. We need Priests and Prophets at this time, maintaining order, hygiene and protocol, pronouncing justice, kindness and solidarity to all who are affected and stricken – medically, economically and spiritually.
And so, as we journey closer to this Levitical heart of the Torah, we are poignantly reminded that its injunctions resonate deeper with us than ever before. Attending to detail, washing our hands in our modern-day lavers and basins, is what will save us. It is what will flatten the curve. Never has the small be as impactful onto the great. As we are hurtled through space on this pale, blue dot, each and every one of us is entrusted with a great, holy and awesome responsibility. Through social distancing, through rigorous hygiene, through acts of solidarity and love, through trust and civic responsibility, we can flatten the curve. Buy time, heal wounds, bring togetherness, build community.
This is our holy charge, from the pages of an ancient text deeply familiar with plagues and infectious disease, profoundly affected by forces unseen, be they 160 nanometers in scope. Still, we trust in a Greater Force Unseen, manifesting in all of our healing hands and restorative acts. Let us act together and be in awe of what we can do.