COVID-19 could kill us, but it shouldn’t also bring shame upon us or our infected loved ones. And it won’t. Unless we play into the growing stigma that is at once immoral and dangerous to our mental health. If we play into that stigma, then COVID-19 will do both: shame us unfairly while increasing the chances it might kill us.
I recently officiated at the funeral of a wonderfully vivacious person, a good friend, one of the first Jews in our county to die from COVID-19. I planned for the burial with a family that would not be able to attend and negotiated new protocols with the local mortuary and cemetery, who were thoughtful and responsible. It was at once heart-breaking and meaningful, as we Facetimed them into the ceremony.
I also fielded many questions about how he died, questions ranging from the seemingly innocuous to the downright blunt. “I just spoke to him recently; he seemed to be hopeful. What happened?” asked one inquirer subtly. Other questions attempted to explore the prevalent concern we all share: “Did he [pause] have coronavirus?” asked another uncomfortably but bluntly. These questions mirror a related trend: social media posts that explicitly state that a deceased loved one did not die of the coronavirus.
Why these questions and posts?
It’s what I call the COVID Kavod dilemma.
In Hebrew, the word kavod means both “heavy” and “respect.” Pronounced in Yiddish similarly to COVID, Kavod reminds us that some situations carry more weight than others and that which is weighty deserves our respect.
People often ask why someone died. Perhaps discerning the cause of death brings comfort for some. Perhaps such clarity will:
- Help us make sense of the nonsensical.
- Protect us from life’s randomness by defining away the randomness.
- Ease our concerns about our own mortality.
Yet trying to discern the cause of death also runs the risk of unintentionally shifting the blame for death onto the victim, subtly suggesting that she must have done something that brought this upon herself. Or that he deserved it.
That’s the kaved (heaviness) of COVID-19.
It’s alive and well in the Bible and among some of our contemporary politicians and faith leaders.
In the Torah, there’s a poignant story about five women – Machlah, Noa, Choglah, Milcah, and Zilpah – who successfully stand up to the Israelite patriarchy to ensure that women can inherit land. In their strategic statement, they discuss the death of their father Zelophechad: “Zelophechad died of his own sin.” Notice that Torah shares little about the man himself. Yet makes explicitly clear that he died during the Israelite wandering in the wilderness, and he did not play a part in Korach’s rebellion against Moses and God (Numbers 27).
The Torah wants to distance Zelophechad from the deaths of 250 other men, each dying because of their own foolish (or dangerous choice) to follow Korach and his megalomaniacal uprising. By articulating that Zelophechad died of his own sin, the Torah speaks in the millennia-old language in which it was written: when death was seen at best as the result of our own mistakes and at worst as a punishment from God for that sinfulness.
Disease is not a punishment from God
Today, we better understand disease and death than we did 4,000+ years ago. Clearly we don’t believe that God punishes or that those who die of disease were not deserving of it. Right?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Remember that scene in Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, when Eugene confides that Aunt Blanche’s husband Dave died [Eugene looks around and whispers] “of cancer.” Back in the day, before the scientific world wrapped its head around cancer, the common person related to cancer as a shameful disease, a punishment for some yet unknown reason.
Remember the AIDS crisis, as it was becoming clear that AIDS was transmitted primarily by shared needles, unprotected sex – especially homosexual sex, and blood transfusions? Back then people looked askance at those who contracted the disease. Why? Because prevalent morality of the day looked at drug use and homosexuality as immoral. Those who contracted this disease, declared too many religious and political leaders of that era, simply deserved this disease as punishment (by God) for their immoral misdeeds.
Today we understand that drug use is also a disease. We know that homosexuality has nothing to do with morality – in fact, it is just another form of love endowed and blessed by our Creator. And it has become clear that blood transfusion-transmitted disease was the result of errors in the process of protecting our blood supply.
Innoculate yourself from unscientific prejudices
The COVID-19 virus presents a new opportunity for prejudice – but only if we let it.
“The diseased deserve it.” People who don’t understand the scientific basis of illness – in those horrifying months or years before diagnosis meets up with inoculation, treatment, and cures – too often seek to find meaning in unscientific prejudices. “God is punishing them.” Religious and political leaders, who eschew and even denigrate scientific research and knowledge, infect us all with prejudice and discrimination where compassion and kindness ought to be.
It is time we rebalance this COVID/Kavod connection. Recognizing that coronavirus is just a disease – a scary, as of yet untreatable, very dangerous disease – we should bring honor and respect to those who contract, suffer from, and/or die from the disease.
We should reject – as most rabbis and contemporary Jewish thinkers do – the spurious notion that God punishes people with disease, no matter what the Torah’s pre-scientific explanations suggested. We should disavow teachings – which will inevitably arise – that the Source of Life has sent COVID-19 to root out raunchiness and immorality.
God provides us with skills and wisdom to heal
Rather than Divine Punisher, we can know God as the Divine Provider, the One who gives us all the skills and wisdom we need to stop this. Perhaps we can redirect our anger or fear toward partnering with God, as we focus our minds and our money on preventing, healing, curing, and recovering.
Yes, disease causes dis-ease. It is heavy and makes us uncomfortable. To be sure, we are in a unique situation in which we need to determine how to protect ourselves and our loved ones. We need to know who was infected so we can determine who needs to quarantine. But once we know, we can choose to lead with compassion and care toward the mourners. So let’s choose kavod – to respect and honor our dead, to support and honor the mourners – by lifting up their lives and loves.
This article benefited from the insightful editing of Congregation Or Ami’s former interns – Rabbi Dusty Klass, Rabbi Julie Bressler, Rabbi Elana Nemitoff-Bresler, Rabbi Lori Levine – whose wisdom and feedback continue to push me to think more deeply and write more clearly.