My Word: Prayers, peace, politics and a pandemic

Last year, we hadn’t heard of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus; this year, there was no escape.

The flags of the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Bahrain are screened on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City on September 15. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
The flags of the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Bahrain are screened on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City on September 15.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Let’s start at the end. The year 5780, according to the Hebrew calendar, is coming to a close. And – given the type of year it’s been – that’s good news. As the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, starts on Friday night, September 18, one phrase comes to my mind. It’s from the Sephardi liturgy recited on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and its refrain and last line are more pertinent than ever: “Tikhleh shanah v’kileloteha,” “Tahel shanah u’virkoteha” May this year and its curses end. May the year and its blessings begin.
What a year it’s been. The Unetaneh Tokef liturgical poem – recited on Rosh Hashanah and made popular by the variation sung by Leonard Cohen – asks about the coming year: Who will live and who will die, who in good time and who in untimely death; who by water and who by fire; who by upheaval and who by plague?
When we ask those questions this year they will resound around the Jewish world and beyond. It’s been a year of fires, floods and, above all, the year 5780 was the year of the novel coronavirus pandemic, which took the lives of close to one million people around the globe and affected everybody.
Last year, we hadn’t heard of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus; this year, there was no escape.
Last year, Zoom was not a concept with a capital Z. This year has seen Zoom prayers, Zoom Seders, Zoom bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, schools, business meetings and so much more.
The world lost its sense of security. Even those not directly affected by the disease felt the economic and social impact of the measures taken to try to stop its spread. There are those who died not of the virus directly but of the financial or emotional stress and distress it wrought. Any lockdown needs to take this cost into account.
The very fabric of society was ripped apart. Too many elderly suffering from high risk of the disease were at equally high risk of soul-destroying isolation. Never was the call of Psalm 71 “Cast me not off in the time of old age; when my strength faileth, forsake me not” so apt.
No longer could we gather to gain comfort and support even within families and communities. Synagogues (like churches, mosques and other places of worship) were closed for months on end. Outside prayer gatherings, balcony prayers, minyanim in parks and gardens tried to take their place but were not the same.
I keep reminding myself to take a deep breath. It only goes to remind me that I’m wearing a mask.
Time itself seems to play strange games the way the coronavirus played tricks on the scientists and medical teams dedicating their lives to beating it. Passover, at the beginning of April, seems both a long time ago and yet painfully close on the lockdown spectrum. Last Rosh Hashanah seems like a world away.
Air travel came to a virtual halt, splitting families that are spread among countries. Cultural events went online – without the good vibe that comes from experiencing music or theater together. (I suspect that part of the reason for the mass demonstrations outside the Prime Minister’s Residence and elsewhere is the absence of other places to gather and meet, when restaurants, bars, clubs and cinemas remain closed.)
I learned to hate the term “social distancing” and replaced it with “spatial separation.” Israelis usually pull together in an emergency. But this was a war of a different type. People played the blame game while the war was still raging. The religious, banned from the prayer gatherings and study that provide rhythm and reason to their lives in normal times, watched the mass protests of tens of thousands and wondered how that could not be a threat. The stridently secular saw the high rates of COVID-19 in religious towns and neighborhoods and responded in a way that occasionally crossed into antisemitic tropes. The rights of holding mass demonstrations were compared to the rights to hold mass weddings. Both missed the point. We’re in this together and have to rely on fighting it together by wearing masks and maintaining a safe distance, not a divide.
When the coronavirus put the “panic” in “pandemic,” my favorite new word became “caremongering” as opposed to scaremongering. There were still helpers. The disease brought out the best and the worst in people. The best was very good, the worst was awful. We were all moved out of our comfort zone, how we chose to respond was one of the few things we could control.
IN MANY WAYS, this last week of 5780 has been the least predictable. Peace – or at least normalization – took center stage as Israel signed the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in a festive ceremony on the White House lawn. The response to this welcome event, was however, depressingly predictable.
The world is suffering as much from polarization as it is from the coronavirus. Those who don’t want to see anything good relating to US President Donald Trump or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu managed to dismiss or belittle the event.
The treaties offer hope. Influenced no doubt mainly by the need to tackle the common enemy of nearly-nuclear Iran and jihadist extremism, the treaties nonetheless also pragmatically deal with progress in everyday fields: health, environment, agriculture, travel and communications. All those who worked to achieve these agreements believe that they will be of lasting benefit. Not just a political legacy (as the critics sneer), the Abraham Accords mark a paradigm shift in peacemaking in the Middle East. On September 15, 2020, normalization became normal. Two influential entities in the Gulf declared that ties that benefit all the people of the region need not be kept secret. Other Arab countries will follow suit sooner or later.
The UAE and Bahrain also showed the Palestinians that war and terrorism are not the way. The Palestinians, true to form, rejected the message. Even before the news that Bahrain had boarded the peace train, the Palestinian leadership denounced the Arab League’s refusal to condemn the UAE for signing up to the deal.
Mohannad Aklouk, the Palestinian envoy to the league, brushed off the disappointment with the chilling statement: “We have dignity, martyrs, prisoners and refugee camps of glory, and this is enough for us.”
Read that again and weep. Instead of moving toward peace and ending bloodshed on both sides, Palestinian officials insist on fostering the cult of martyrdom, encouraging terrorism and the perpetual condition of being considered refugees.
To hammer the message home, Palestinians in Gaza launched rockets on southern Israel as the treaty signing ceremony was being held. The result was a peculiar split-screen phenomenon for Israeli viewers with the red-alert warnings superimposed over the speeches. Footage of incoming rockets being shot down by the Iron Dome provided a perverse image that at first glance looked like celebratory fireworks. The Palestinians haven’t been betrayed by the Arab world; they’re being betrayed by their own leadership.
The coronavirus crisis has meant that people everywhere have had to reexamine their lives, needs and priorities. At this time of year, nothing could be more fitting. Rosh Hashanah is symbolized by a unique period of soul-searching, “heshbon nefesh” – for being grateful for having been inscribed in the Book of Life for the past year, praying the same for the year ahead.
Out with 5780, in with 5781. May the year with all of its blessings begin. And may we be wise enough to count those blessings. May this be the year in which a vaccine allows immunization to replace isolation. And let it be a year of peace, prosperity and above all, of good health – physical, emotional and social.
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