This past year has been one of hardship, suffering and death for many people across the globe. The COVID-19 pandemic did not discriminate along racial or religious lines or issues of personal background. Having faced the same danger together, hopefully we have achieved a new sense of respect and tolerance for all people.
My wife and I arrived in Israel just prior to the onset of the virus in early March 2020. We managed to celebrate Purim “normally” but the restrictive measures were then put in place. Israel took the crisis very seriously and went into full lockdown mode. This meant that the most public institutions such as businesses, shopping malls, restaurants, schools and even synagogues were suddenly off limits.
Indeed, one was no longer free to even go out for a long walk as the distance one might traverse from one’s home was severely limited. This impacted me as walking is my prime form of exercise, which I take very seriously. I usually walk between 5 and 7 miles a day, which in hilly Jerusalem constitutes a significant workout. But this draconian measure was soon modified. A new rule was added saying that those who needed to walk for exercise or medical reasons were permitted.
The restrictions had a telling effect on the economy and personal lives of people. As Passover arrived the practical and psychological effects of the new reality were in effect. Put simply, this is a time when people expect to celebrate together with family and close friends. Suddenly that privilege, which we had always taken for granted, was gone. That proved to be a serious hardship, especially for the elderly, many of whom lacked a spouse and had to celebrate the seder alone. This was a prospect they had never dreamed of.
Israel is a can-do country that thrives on challenges. In addition, it has a very heightened sense of responsibility for the well-being of its elderly population. Signs on buses contain Torah quotes such as, “In the presence of an old person you shall rise.” The society has a deep sense of concern for people in need and goes out of its way to facilitate their well-being.
Thus, the Jerusalem Municipality made phone calls to all people over a certain age asking how they were doing and what assistance they could use. They made sure to procure their medicines, food supplies and other basic requirements and have them delivered. This proved to be a great blessing for this population in both a practical and psychological manner.
The virtue of social concern was manifested in other ways. Passover and the other holidays were challenging because of the social isolation. But the Israeli spirit shone forth. Word went out that people were invited to go to their windows at a certain time and join together to sing the “Ma Nishtana” (Four Questions). At the designated moment we opened our window and joined many neighbors in this chant. It provided a meaningful sense that we were not alone. We were together with many others in the celebration of Passover.
The same spirit shone forth in other religious observances. When synagogues were closed it did not prevent people from having minyan services. Suddenly outdoor ad hoc prayer groups sprung up in courtyards, terraces and on street corners. One could simply walk down the street and — retaining mandatory distancing — participate in prayers. This was extremely important to many people, especially those who needed to say Kaddish and observe yahrzeits. In general, outdoor minyans would be highly problematic due to the bone-chilling Jerusalem winters. But as luck or Divine Providence would have it, this turned out to be one of the mildest Jerusalem winters in memory.
The concern for the religious fulfillment of all Jews, even non-religious ones, was also present on Rosh Hashanah. The primary mitzvah of that day is to hear the blowing of the shofar.
But what about people who could not make it to a shul? An appeal was made for all people who could do so to go to their windows and blow the shofar at 11 a.m. At that moment, people walking through the streets paused and fulfilled the mitzvah. Even many not wearing kippot stopped and listened respectfully, and the nation was united in this special divine service.
Israel demonstrated its energy and vitality in its manner of distributing the miraculous COVID vaccine, which was created in record time. It is especially important that it be distributed in an efficient and widespread manner. Here there was no need for anyone to apply for the shots.
Back in December, my wife and I were notified by text as to the time and place of our inoculations. We were then called to confirm the appointments. We went at the set time expecting to have a long wait. To my pleasant surprise there was no delay. We were admitted and given the shot immediately.
On a personal note, I was able to navigate most of the challenges of the COVID year in stride. We must appreciate and be fully grateful for the benefits that are provided by advanced technology. For me, it is a game changer. True togetherness consists of meaningful and intense communication.
I have many students across America and Israel and hold classes with them via Skype and Zoom. While this venue may be problematic for young children, it is ideal for adults. And due to the fact that so many people have been homebound, more of them are signing up for virtual Torah classes. If a rediscovery of the supreme Jewish value of learning emerges from this gloomy season it will be a positive development.
The matzav (situation) seems to be improving every day here in Israel as the nation hopefully approaches herd immunity. The political indecisiveness still persists and we had the privilege to participate in the fourth Israeli election to be held in two years. Let’s hope a spirit of national unity emerges which allows for the establishment of a strong and stable new government.
As we gingerly make our way out of the restrictions imposed by COVID, let us hope we emerge with a greater understanding of what truly matters and the wisdom and compassion to make this great country and the world a better place. JN
Rabbi Reuven Mann is the founder of Congregation Torat Emet in Phoenix.