The expression comes from the Torah, Leviticus 26:36. The full phrase is ‘the sound of a driven leaf will put them to flight.’ It appears in a series of curses, a classic expression of the reward and punishment theology you find in various places in the Torah. These texts generally begin with a list of good things that will happen if Israel follows God’s commands, and then are followed by a list of bad things – ‘curses’ – that will occur if Israel ignores God and God’s will.
I don’t believe in reward and punishment theology. Maybe that can be the topic for a full blog post at some point, but suffice it to say it just doesn’t make sense to me that God is up there somewhere with a giant clipboard, keeping track of my actions (or anyone else’s for that matter) and then deciding because I did (or did not do) X,Y, or Z, then such and such a thing will (or will not) happen to me. Not that there aren’t rewards for leading a life of faith – there are, and they are many. But they are human rewards, coming from deep down in our hearts and souls – a deepened understanding of life, a structure to access and amplify gratitude and humility, a feeling of place and connection in a vast cosmos. But to put it crassly, I don’t think God watches what I do and then decides I’ll get into a car accident because I’ve done something wrong. Not my theology, not my god.
That being said I can’t get the above Leviticus phrase out of my mind. I feel like we are all living it in real time, with every awkward social distancing moment, with the constant hand washing and wiping of grocery store carts and the way people cross the street to avoid walking by neighbors. We are constantly looking over our shoulders, waiting for something terrible to happen, virtually sacred of our own shadows. If you will, a ‘driven leaf’ has put us to flight.
Now I understand the importance of social distancing, of staying home if at all possible, of spreading the curve. And not only do I understand it, it seems to be working, and very gradually we can perhaps feel the slightest turning of the tide in a positive direction. But I do wonder about the after effects. When this is all over (and it will be at some point!) how long will the driven leaf continue to haunt our thoughts? Will we continue to hear its almost imperceptible whisper? How long until we are comfortable going out to a restaurant? A baseball or football game, with tens of thousands of people in one place? A rock and roll concert standing shoulder to shoulder with thousands of people we’ve never met. That is an extreme form of social UNdistancing. When will we be ready for that?
I often think of the following analogy. One morning we wake up, swing our feet out over the floor, put them down to walk, and the floor, unexplainably, is not there. We cry out, stumble, fall. Suddenly what we had known our entire lives, that a floor would meet our feet each morning, was no longer true.
After an experience like that it takes a long time to feel confident when you put your foot down for that first step. In your rational mind you might know the floor is there, but your emotional self can’t help but be worried that nothing will meet your feet, that what happened that one time will happen again. It takes time, it takes step after step and experience after experience where things work they way we expect them to, where the world is the way we’ve known it to be, for our confidence to return. That first time we are out, that first meal in a restaurant, that first ball game or party or concert, and we will still feel the presence of the driven leaf. But its presence will recede as time passes, as life grows more normal, as the floor is there to meet our firm steps, again and again and again.