As the still mysterious and unknown (indeed, it’s called “novel”) Coronavirus Covid-19 begins to hit closer to home, we’re starting to take some more precautions. After all, we do have to be responsible. Some of the recommendations of the CDC and health experts are pretty basic and easier to implement. Washing our hands more frequently (and more vigorously) or using more hand-sanitizer (if you can get it or make it) isn’t that big of a deal and it’s something easy enough to do. Same for spraying down or sanitizing surfaces a little more often, we can do that, too. Some say to try to avoid handshakes if you can, there are other ways (air-fives, elbow-bumps, the Wuhan-handshake with feet, or a simple wave or nod, or a warm hello) that can do the same. All these recommendations (which may change or be updated soon) are pretty doable, and seem to be reasonable in the effort to try and contain the viral spread to whatever degree we can.
But there’s one (current) Coronavirus COVID-19 CDC recommendation that is much harder than it seems: Don’t touch your face, or touch your face less.
Now, we don’t realize how often we touch our faces. It’s a reflex, it’s so natural, try to stop doing it for a little while and you’ll realize how often we do it. Some of us do it more than others but all of us might be surprised at how often we do it. One of the well-traveled (dare we say, viral?) corona-virus videos is of a somber health official at an official press conference, she’s standing in front of a mic’d podium with stern serious men standing behind her. She speaks about the recommendation not to touch your face and then immediately proceeds to lick a finger to turn the page of her speech…
While we can all try (won’t be easy) to minimize the face-touching to some degree during this virus concern… what’s the spiritual life message here?
At least 15 years ago, maybe closer to 20 years back, there was a lively jamming night at Shabbos House, and David G. (’04) got onto a bongo drum and was hammering away, and got into some kind of rhythm or groove, when he made up these random words to a beat: “The hands are the dirtiest part of the body!” He got it worked up into a beat, and anyone who was there won’t forget it. And it’s true. The Talmud says “our hands are busy (with contamination)” touching and holding and moving and dealing with all things of life.
The parts of the face they want us to avoid touching with our hands are the nose and mouth, where we breathe. The danger of the Coronavirus COVID-19 is that it attacks the respiratory system, especially the elderly or those who are immuni-compromised. The breath of life is likened to the soul, as the verse in Genesis say, “(G-d) breathed into (Adam) the soul of life.” We say in our morning blessings, “the soul you breathed into me, O’ G-d, is pure.”
Our hands engage a lot, and they certainly should, but our souls need to remain pure. Even as we immerse ourselves and involve ourselves in our worldly pursuits and touch and handle and hold all types of worldly things, we should be careful not to touch our “face” the pure breath of our soul with “unwashed hands”. It is so critical that our soul remain untainted, non-contaminated, retain its holiness even as we keep busy with worldly pursuits. Yes, we can be involved in all types of groups and events and activities on campus, but our Jewish commitment, our core-connection, our Jewish soul, ought to remain special, on its own wavelength, not tangled up or confused with other things. It might be impossible to avoid, but minimizing it can help.
There’s a Purim connection, too:
The Talmud says that the Jews had no business enjoying King Achashvairosh’s grand feast. The emphasis is on the word enjoyment. Yes, they might have had to be there, to show up as good citizens and take part as their civic duty. But they shouldn’t have breathed it in. It would have been best if it was a hands-on type of involvement, not a breath-it-in and deeply relish kind of thing, especially as part of the celebration was the (mistaken) 70 year destruction mark of the Jerusalem Temple.
PS: This same idea is what the Rebbe says about Jacob surrounding his heads with stones on that night with Jacob’s Ladder before entering the land of Haran and the world of his uncle Laban, but that’s for another time.