COVID-19 has unmasked Israel's haredi, secular communities - opinion

The coronavirus crisis has laid bare for all to see both the pride and the problems of Israel vis-à-vis the pandemic, revealing the heroes – and the heels – along the way.

PEEKING OVER the mechitza at the Kotel. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
PEEKING OVER the mechitza at the Kotel.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
 Each one of us has his or her own secrets, but there are no secrets from the all-knowing God. Periodically, the Almighty, in His wisdom, chooses to reveal to the world at large that which is normally hidden.
This phenomenon dramatically occurred during the period of the Exodus. When the final plague of the smiting of the firstborn took place, the eldest child in the household – both of the mother and father – perished. But the Midrash notes that in numerous Egyptian homes, not one but two children died, for unbeknownst to the husband, his wife had carried on an illicit relationship and was impregnated by a lover, producing her own firstborn.
In another example, the Torah records that the Children of Israel survived for 40 years in the desert by eating the miraculous manna. This food from Heaven fell each morning (except for Shabbat) at or near the doorsteps of the Israelites’ tents. But, in a miracle within a miracle, the proximity of the manna to the tent was in direct relation to the righteousness of that particular family. As a result, many in the community were quite shocked to learn who was truly deserving of Divine praise, and who was not.
In similar fashion, the corona crisis has laid bare for all to see both the pride and the problems of Israel vis-à-vis the pandemic, revealing the heroes – and the heels – along the way.
We have been allowed into the inner workings of our hospitals and shown just how amazingly devoted so many of our health workers are, how they have selflessly doubled their shifts, endangered their own lives and put their patients before all else, including family.
We have seen innumerable citizens sublimate their own personal interests in deference to the national good, keeping weddings and funerals to the bare minimum, strictly obeying health ministry regulations and closing their places of business at the cost of their livelihood. Their resilience is remarkable.
Yet sadly, we have also borne witness to gross violations of the health codes, with little regard for the consequences to the general public and the violators themselves. Massive wedding celebrations that break every rule have been held in defiance of the regulations, with police coconspirators turning a blind eye and refusing to enforce the law.
We have agonized over unending bickering within the government, confusion as to what restrictions should be applied where and when, and the inability of our so-called leaders – political as well as religious – to educate, inform and motivate the populace to join together into a unified force against the virus.
Regrettably, what could have been a glorious moment in our nation’s history has descended into just another “us versus them” scenario, increasing divisiveness and failure of purpose. Frustration has reached new levels.
The metaphor I see this as is a glass mechitza (partition). Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the paramount halachic decisors of the 20th century, famously ruled that a divider between the sexes in a synagogue could be transparent, as long as the people on both sides were dressed modestly. As I look out upon the country, I see a virtual glass partition that lets people view the other side, yet holds them back from ever actually connecting to one another.
The secular segment gazes at elements in the haredi world and asks, “Why can’t you abide by the rules? Why would you value Torah study over life itself? Why must you pray publicly and gather mask-lessly – recklessly – spreading infection, instead of putting your own personal desires on hold until the crisis has passed? And even if you, personally, did nothing wrong, why do you stand by meekly rather than correct your compatriots?”
And those in the haredi world look through that very same glass and wonder aloud, “Hypocrites! Why are your weekly, even daily protests against the prime minister any less dangerous than our weddings? There is shouting and partying and dancing at both! And why can you gather at beaches in large numbers, when our prayer groups are restricted to just 10?”
There are precious few mediators who have the trust of both factions, who appreciate the arguments on both sides of that mechitza. In a sense, the clear glass has turned into a mirror, whereby we see only ourselves and our own needs and desires, while dismissing the opinions of those across the divide.
OF THE secular world, I ask that you appreciate the Jewish character that the observant community brings to Israel, the “Jewish” component that makes this a true Jewish state. Keep in mind that whatever religious practice you may or may not follow today, your great-grandparents and their predecessors were undoubtedly deeply committed to Jewish tradition. Did the Torah world not keep alive the dream of returning to our homeland throughout the generations, even when we were spread across the Diaspora? Do they not deserve respect for their ongoing devotion to the faith?
And of the haredi world, I ask that you recognize the goodness and godliness of those less observant than you. They built this country, they defend this country, they brought to fruition the Israel that you prayed for. They are precious in God’s eyes no less than you. The doctor, the builder, the store owner and the taxi driver are every bit as elite as the yeshiva student, the Talmud teacher, even the rosh yeshiva. Who but God dares to decide where the manna falls?
Purim and new elections are just around the corner. Let’s take off the masks and the costumes that hide our true selves, the disguises that fool us into thinking we are so different from each other. Let us, rather, reveal the human soul that we all share and the reality that ultimately, we sink or swim together.
And let us hope that we will be led by men and women with the ability to see well beyond themselves, with a crystal-clear vision for the future.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. [email protected]