Within 24 hours, I watched Donald Trump leave Washington in disgrace, received my second coronavirus vaccination, and finished saying the mourner’s kaddish after 11 months, for my late mother, Elaine Gerson Troy. Experienced together, these random events illuminate a central concern of Joe Biden’s young presidency, the soul.
Despite America’s separation of church and state, Biden’s soul-talk makes sense. As the high priests of America’s civil religion – democracy – America’s presidents often tap into a religious devotion among America’s citizens.
Like religion, democracy requires a leap of faith, accepting certain useful fictions that can unite 330 million people – more or less. We talk about “consent of the governed” and certainly have elections, but most citizens are born into democracies and automatically follow their laws.
America is finishing a four-year experiment proving how brutalized its democracy can be when a president dismisses what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” and declares war on all those little niceties and invisible ties that keep any democracy functioning.
By contrast, while Israel has its troubles – including a prime minister who long ago stopped appealing to Israelis’ “better angels,” too – Israel is demonstrating impressive democratic functionality. I received both vaccinations before my 91-year-old father in Bethesda, Maryland, even secured a first appointment. The well-organized medical system, the smooth supply train, the national mobilization effort, reflect well on Israel’s body – its basic functions. But the way my wife and I and thousands of others received our first jab reflects the delightful, informal nature of Israel’s national soul.
A few weeks ago, at 8:11 p.m., a friend texted that there were extra vaccines being distributed, without queues. We rushed across town. Rather than being seen in a zero-sum game as taking from someone else, we were doing a social good – guaranteeing the night’s vaccines did not end up in the next day’s trash. By 8:43 we had our first vaccine and an appointment for No. 2.
For weeks now, that informal word-of-mouth network of Israelis looking out for one another has ensured that no vaccine goes to waste. The results have been remarkable – culminating in a second round administered in the now underutilized Jerusalem International Convention Center – efficiently, effectively – and with smiles on everyone’s faces.
The fact that our first nurse was a male Arab-Israeli – whom we just called a nurse – adds another delightful democratic dimension. Many Israeli Jews are becoming increasingly aware of the magical numbers illustrating how Israel’s soul is also healing in other ways: a once heavily discriminated-against minority – nearly 20% of the population – is not out of the woods but far more mainstreamed than it was. Arab-Israelis represent 24% of Israel’s nurses, 17% of its doctors and 47% of its pharmacists.
I have been thinking a lot about soul matters because Jewish tradition tells me that my two brothers and I have been praying desperately to raise my mother’s soul to the heavens. Frankly, after 86 years of giving and goodness, she doesn’t need my help.
During coronavirus’s long blur and blah, the prayer has given my days, my weeks, these 11 months, structure amid the slog, certainty amid the uncertainty, some meaning amid the madness. And during this prolonged shutdown, my mother gave me two precious posthumous gifts – two new communities, one virtual, one real.
On weekdays, I pray with a Zoom minyan organized by the “Yael” shul – technically Beit Knesset Emek Refaim. Since April, we have mourned with new members who joined us as loved ones died, and celebrated with now-veteran members as grandchildren – and great-grandchildren – were born.
I never understood the Jewish obsession with sponsoring breakfast for daveners. But when we hit the 11-month mark I regretted not buying my new Zoom buddies breakfast. How else could I thank them for their efforts? Kaddish is an intensely personal journey requiring a group effort: you need nine others to pray with you.
Every Shabbat, I have enjoyed a different Covid phenomenon, the pop-up neighborhood minyan. My family and I have made friends for life, befriending neighbors we didn’t even know existed. We now study together, socialize together, pray together – and, when necessary, mourn together.
These corona-time prayer improvisations occasionally remind me of Elon Gold’s comic routine about how Jews would take all the fun out of celebrating Christmas, raising too many questions about how to cut the tree, when to cut it, where to cut it. Tractate Zoom would ask: If someone is sitting shiva and joins your Zoom, do we pray as though we were in a shiva house? Or does kaddish count if said with video off but unmuted? What about video on and muted? And Tractate Mask would go further: Do I lower the mask to kiss the Torah (no – super spreader)? to kiss my own tzitzit (prayer fringes) during the Shema – a definite maybe). Does someone count in the quorum if they are across the street? On a third-floor balcony? Behind a window because of quarantine? These are all situations I witnessed.
I soon realized that while I don’t know if my kaddish experience elevated my mother’s soul, I know it helped mine. And we see that Israel survives not just with a strong body but with a hearty soul.
Meanwhile, America’s crisis is not just about Trump’s blackened soul – but about America’s.
Ultimately, these overlapping experiences teach: a person without a soul can’t find meaning in life; a nation without a soul can’t find its mission.
The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University and the author of nine books on American history and three on Zionism. His book Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, coauthored with Natan Sharansky, was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.