Friday, March 14, 1997

Saturday Morning Fever (Jewish Week)

The Jewish Week, March 14, 1997

Tuesday the rabbi got sick. My two young children had come down with the flu the previous weekend, so I was not shocked when, two hours after a lunch I could barely touch, I was shivering in bed with a personal-best fever of 103.7. Four days later, with my temperature still soaring and a big bat mitzvah looming, I sweated over one question alone: When the big moment arrives, how close should I get to the girl?

Allow me to explain: I am a member of the world's second-oldest profession, a vocation that requires nearly as much on-the-job intimacy as that older one. Both stretch back to cultic origins and draw upon our innate craving to consummate bliss through human attachment. But now, for my congregation, the hired conduit was severed. What's worse, he was revealed to be demonstrably human. And worse still, the healer was contagious. In our microbially-beset culture, where every bout with illness has become a morality play, I discovered paranoia to be the most infectious disease of all.

My first response to this plight was self pity. I longed for those misty scenes of my childhood: the head-clearing essence of steamed Vicks in my bedroom, a hot bowl of stovecooked oatmeal on my breakfast tray, and me, propped up in my bed, glaring at the snowy black-and-white image of Captain Kangaroo on the nine-inch Hitachi imported from the kitchen just for this occasion. I longed for my parents' unquestioning caresses.

But I understood that gone are the days of guilt-free sickness. Now the world fears illness and chastises the ailing. "Dr. Mom" has become Inspector Mom. Because I was too sick to return most calls, I programmed my voice mail with a phlegmy greeting informing people of my affliction.

Big mistake.

Later that day, I listened to seven consecutive messages beginning with, "You mean you didn't take the flu shot?" As the days passed, the remarks kept coming, boring harder and deeper with each beep, like a dentist's punitive drill slamming down to bedrock for traces of forbidden salt water taffy. How could you? How dare you? To be sure, many also expressed get-well wishes, but while I was longing for the maternal caress, they were the ones acting as if the primordial Parent had let them down.

I understood their sense of betrayal and began to blame myself. Everything that a rabbi represents to people was being challenged by my illness: defiance of mortality; stability in life's wild ride; the illusion of control. The flu shot, though hardly foolproof, nurtures that same illusion, presenting people with an alternative to helplessness. It also provides a needed outlet for self-righteousness. Since the days of Job, humanity's greatest defense against the inexplicable, utterly terrifying ways of God has been to concoct a human cause, inflict blame and thereby manage the chaos. And when your spiritual leader is being punished for his sins, can anyone else possibly be safe?

Actually, I intended to take the shot, just never got around to it. I should have. As one who both preaches and practices greater intimacy in prayer, I spend more waking hours kissing and embracing people than do those of that more ancient profession. At the previous weekend's bar mitzvah, I probably infected 200 or 300 unsuspecting worshipers, who undoubtedly had gone on to spread the virus to thousands of others. But was I now supposed to recollect all my recent social encounters and inform each partner individually of my transgression? When every handshake becomes the moral equivalent of unprotected sex, are we heading quickly toward the elimination of all casual contact?

When I returned to services the following weekend, word had spread like, well, a virus. Circling the sanctuary with the Torah scroll, I felt increasingly isolated, as if quarantined like the lepers of Leviticus, or that boy in the bubble. From the start, kissing and shaking hands were out of the question; then vocal communication - no one wanted to be less than 20 feet downwind - then even eye contact became difficult. With people turning away in fear, how could I reach out and draw them in? If I could not be a conduit for connection, how could I serve them and help them serve God?

Then came the moment of truth. I always kiss the bat mitzvah girl on the cheek when I present her with her Bible. With my coughing a noticeable distraction, I imagined the hundreds present asking themselves, "Will he or won't he? Could this monster have the chutzpah to endanger this sweet-chanting flower, this tiny, beaming innocent just entering the prime of possibility - and just hours away from an awesome party?"

As I prayed for strength, I began to understand that in my preoccupation over the cure, I had failed to seize the opportunity to heal. Immunity might be a necessary for politicians and prostitutes, but for clergy it is our most dangerous pitfall. For us to succeed we must above all be flawed and vulnerable, reaching out from a defiled, squalid place that only real people can understand. That is how good leaders, from Mother Teresa to the Baal Shem Tov, have become hallowed healers. Others can take flu shots. A true healer must, like Moses after hearing of Miriam's leprous curse, cry out from among the afflicted, "El Na R'fa Na La!" "I beg of you, O God, heal her, I beseech!" Only such champions of the spirit can inoculate our communities from the isolation and cyber-sterility that threaten us all.

So, I took my prayer book and kissed it; and at my soft instruction she, looking far wiser than her years, took her new Bible and kissed it, and we stretched our arms so that my sacred words could touch hers and, through that textual caress, thereby purify that unholy space hovering between us, that exists within all of us.