Washing Hands & Counting Omer: From Corona Plague Toward a New Society


By Faryn Borella

As coronavirus began to become a reality in the U.S. and health experts began to urge us to wash our hands ever more frequently, a certain meme went viral. This meme listed a new order for the prescribed Passover Seder. What traditionally begins Kadesh (sanctification) Urchatz (washing) Karpas (vegetable), Yachatz (breaking of the middle matzah), etc. was transformed into something different, with “Urchatz” inserted, again and again, between each order of the seder, hand-washing becoming the transitional axis around which each element of Seder became possible.

This meme, intended as a joke--as a use of humor as a coping mechanism in challenging times--also contained within it a truth that none of us were fully willing to acknowledge at the time of its genesis--that this thing we’re going through might be much more long-term than we think. For it came out before the self-distancing, before the CDC bans on gatherings over 50 and the White House recommendation against gatherings over 10. Yet it revealed a truth--that even Jewish cycles of time, meant to co-regulate the collective Jewish nervous system--would be impacted by this thing, and our capacity to come together in the most challenging of times was being threatened. We are living in a world where it is quite likely that the Passover Seder, as the location of the ingathering, of community, becomes an impossibility.

Yet if there was one thing our ancestors deeply understood, it was the reality of not always having control over the external factors altering the course of our very lives. And they accounted for the impossibility of the offering of the Pesach korban (“bringing near” – usually translated “sacrifice” or “offering), the core mitzvah of Pesach, by instituting Pesach sheni--the second Pesach—exactly one Jewish moonth later for those who were tamei due to contact with a dead body, and therefore not permitted to offer the Pesach sacrifice.

What does it mean for one to be tamei? It is a state of being--often translated as impure in contrast to its counterweight  tahor, often translated as pure--in which one is not permitted to enter the sacred communal shrine to offer sacrifice to the divine. Yet these translations do us a disservice, as they lead us to believe there is something unhygienic or immoral about one who is tamei. Tumah, within Jewish thought, is not a measure of one’s worth or value, and nothing is inherently or everlastingly tamei. Rather, it is a temporary spiritual state that objects and people can take on due to an uncanny experience of the fragility of life--birth, sex, death. It does not mean you are any lesser than. It merely means you must wait, alone in your uncanniness, to undertake a ritual that makes it possible to rejoin the community. In the case of Pesach sheni, the holiday had to be instituted in order that those who took the time to caretake their dead still had the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of pesach.

At this moment, we are all collectively caretaking a dead body. As a virus runs its course through our globalized world population, death hangs heavy in the very air that we breathe. Our society at this moment is defined by death, our fear of it and our measures to prevent it. But our society itself is also experiencing a death of its own. A death of pace and scale and intensity. And it is rendering us all tamei

The primary means of becoming tahor in times of tumah  is by way of water. As Leviticus 15 states, in times of tamei, one must:

וְרָחַ֥ץ בַּמַּ֖יִם וְטָמֵ֥א עַד־הָעָֽרֶב

Bathe in water and you will remain tamei until evening

Bathing in water is the means by which we purify, but the bathing does not immediately render one pure. Rather, there is the ritual act, and then there is a period in which we must still wait for the ritual magic to take effect.


We are all in this period of waiting.

 How long must we wait to be tahor again? How long will it take our soapy water and hand sanitizer to purify our societies of exploitative, unchecked capitalism and fascist regimes that allow for one virus to reach the level of global pandemic? How long until we can hold one another again?

 Numbers keep getting thrown at us. Eight weeks. 50 people. Three weeks. Ten People. Two hands. Twenty seconds. One person. Six feet. Six feet. Six feet.

 The answer is, we don’t know. But we must prepare for our wait to be long. 

 In Judaism, we have a practice of counting the omer--counting the days between Passover and Shavuot. Between the Barley harvest and the wheat harvest. Between liberation and revelation. 

 This year, our count must begin sooner. We must count from isolation to reunion. From sickness to health. From old world order of Hierarchy and Subjugation  to new world order of Eco-relationship, Beloved Community.

Unlike the omer, in which we know for how long we count, in our times, we know where to begin our count but not yet where to end. Yet we still must ritually track the days in order that we don’t get lost in feeling that the count is perpetual. Let each day be distinguished from the last. Deserving in its own right. Set apart in its own holiness. Blessed and blessed and blessed.

 Through our counting, we will learn how long it takes to purify a society of greed. Of exploitation. Of the scorching of the earth. We will learn the number toward which we must count. If only we are willing to wait, and take part in a ritual act of reconnection.

 What ritual act? When it is revealed that it is time that we finish counting, then we will celebrate liberation&revelation, wrapped together as one inseparable unit. The biggest, brightest, Jewishest festival celebration of our wildest dreams, filled to the brim with ritualized eating, all-night Torah study, and a whole lot of hand-washing.

Stay tuned for The Shalom Center’s revelation of Pesuot: A joint Pesach-Shavuot Celebration of liberation and revelation in times of global pandemic.




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