Our Rabbis taught: If there is plague in the city, gather your feet, as it is said, And none of you shall go out of the door of their house until morning (Exodus 22:22). And it says, Go, my people, enter into your chambers, and close your doors behind you (Isaiah 26:20). And it says, Outside the sword will bereave, and inside terror (Deuteronomy 32:25).
What do we need the verses following, “And it says”? If you say that this matter [applies only] at night, but in the day [it doesn’t apply], come and hear: Go, my people, enter into your chambers, and shut your doors behind you. And if you say that this matter [applies only] where there is no fear inside, but where there is fear inside, when one goes out and sits in the company of other people it is better, come and hear: Outside the sword will bereave, and in the chambers terror — although there is terror “in the chambers,” nonetheless “outside the sword will bereave.” (BT Bava Kamma 60b)
On the Israelites’ last night in Egypt, Moses instructed them to protect themselves from the tenth and final horrifying plague—the death of the firstborn—by taking a handful of hyssop, dipping it in the blood of the pesach lambs they had just slaughtered, and painting the blood across the lintel and on the doorposts of their homes. Then Moses says, None of you shall go outside the door of their house until morning (Exodus 12:22). For a year, we have lived under a lockdown, instructed to stay home as much as possible until a “morning” that is still not yet in sight. The lockdown has evoked many strong emotions, including fear, frustration, depression, and anger. With remarkable insight and wisdom, the Rabbis address the experience of living in lockdown.
In a time of plague, the Rabbis teach in a baraita, we should “gather our feet,” an expression that means we should keep them planted directly under our bodies, i.e., stay home and don’t go outside. The phenomenon of contagious infection was certainly well understood in the ancient world, even if the precise vector of specific diseases was not always known. The Rabbis quote Moses’s instructions to the Israelites on their last night in Egypt to bolster their assertion about the importance of staying home in a time of plague. Although the tenth plague was not a contagion, going outside endangered the Israelites because it placed them beyond the protection afforded by the lamb’s blood on their doorposts; once outside, the “Destroyer” does not distinguish between Israelite and Egyptian. The baraita then quotes two additional verses, one from Isaiah and one from Deuteronomy. Given the power of the first verse, the Gemara wonders why two more verses are needed. What concerns do they address, and how do they teach us to address these concerns?
Gemara first conjectures that some people will think that the prohibition against leaving home in a time of plague applies only at night, but not during the day. Perhaps people feel pressured to go out to work or purchase food or socialize, all of which are accomplished during the hours of daylight. For many people, it’s easier to remain home at night since we (hopefully) will sleep away most of those hours. Daylight hours, in contrast, slog by, hour after lonely and worrisome hour. The verse from Isaiah addresses this all-too-human experience. The full verse says, Go, my people, enter into your chambers, and close your doors behind you; hide yourself for a little moment, until the indignation has passed by (Isaiah 26:20) and the following verse says, For lo! Adonai shall come forth from God’s place to punish the dwellers of the earth for their iniquity; and the earth shall disclose its bloodshed and shall no longer conceal its slain (v. 21). If earth cannot conceal its slain, this must be because it is daytime. For those who thought it was safer to leave home during daylight hours, that clearly is not the case.
Even if some people are not afraid to be isolated at home while a plague rages without, others are afraid even at home and precisely because they are deprived of human company. They may convince themselves that their need for companionship warrants leaving safety. Hence, Outside the sword will bereave, and inside terror (Deuteronomy 32:25) reminds us that as terrifying, difficult, and painful as it may be inside, going outside can be deadly.
Our Sages recognize that fear is compounded by isolation, and may drive people to go outside seeking human companionship to mitigate fear and loneliness, even if doing so increases their physical risk. While it may not feel emotionally safe at home in isolation, it’s still not physically safe outside. If there is terror at home, there is risk of contracting the contagion outside. This is what so many have been struggling with. What extraordinary wisdom for us, who are so eager to throw off the chains of fear and isolation, to gather with friends and embrace relatives. What excellent encouragement to remain appropriately patient and cautious, and to find ways to alleviate the loneliness and fear of someone we know.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Have you experienced fear or loneliness during this year of the pandemic? How have the physical and social restrictions effected you, your friends, and loved ones emotionally? How have you dealt with those feelings?
- How does risky behavior on the part of those eager to throw off the “shackles” of lockdown restrictions effect others, both physically and emotionally? Are there people close to you whose choices concern you?
- What do you do to gather strength to endure the continuing necessity of living with restrictions? What else might you do? TO whom can you turn for help and support?