This Rosh Hashanah, let’s strive to be better

There is fear because we don’t really know how the country will look when we emerge, what the economy will look like, and whether we will still have jobs.

Walking in Jerusalem ahead of the September lockdown. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Walking in Jerusalem ahead of the September lockdown.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Today, Israel locks down. It is a sad moment, one that is accompanied by feelings of uncertainty, fear and disappointment.
Uncertainty, because we really do not know how long this lockdown will last, whether it will be just three weeks or maybe even six – the health minister is already saying that very little will be achieved by a three-week lockdown with so many loopholes. Moreover, while we might be locked down in the safety of our homes, we all know that even there, the virus can creep up on us.
There is fear because we don’t really know how the country will look when we emerge, what the economy will look like, and whether we will still have jobs. Will small businesses, still recovering from the last closure, survive? Will our children ever go back to school?
And then there is the disappointment, because deep down we know we could have done things better. We could have been smarter, more strategic and most importantly, more tolerant and understanding.
Israelis already paid a price during the first lockdown, when hundreds of thousands were put on unpaid leave and many lost their jobs for good. People sunk into depression, were afraid to go to hospitals, the sick neglected their health and children fell behind in their studies.
The thought of another lockdown is daunting; some might even say frightening.
But with Rosh Hashanah starting this evening, it is an opportunity for some introspection, a chance to ask ourselves how we got here and what we did wrong: How did Israel go from being the country the entire world wanted to emulate, to the one whose citizens are not allowed to enter Europe, and that everyone now looks to as a model of what not to do?
Mistakes were indeed made along the way.
We did not do mass testing fast enough (some might say we still do not); we didn’t involve the IDF quick enough; we still don’t have the contact tracing system in place needed to fight this disease and we opened up our economy way too fast, speeding like a sports car from 0 to 60 without thinking about the repercussions of our decisions.
Did we have to send all kids back to school so soon after the last lockdown with barely any restrictions? Did we have to reopen indoor seating at restaurants so quickly? And why wasn’t there enforcement when communities around the country violated the rules and held massive parties, weddings and gatherings?
These are all important issues that could have been managed better and still can, if only the government wanted to. But they are also highly technical.
Where we failed as a people was in the way we let ourselves get sucked into a culture of division. We saw the mudslinging among our politicians, and figured that was a good place for us to act likewise. So we adopted the tactics of the bullies of this world, in our public discourse, on our roads and in our homes.
The secular blame the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) for what has happened: It’s their yeshivot, their crowded homes, their weddings, their synagogues and their mikvaot (ritual baths).
The haredim blame the secular: It’s their beaches, their coffee shops, their bars and the protests against the prime minister on Balfour Street.
Everyone has someone to blame; everyone has someone to point a finger at.
But the blame is really on each and every one of us. Yes, maybe we kept the rules, fell in line behind the restrictions and did our individual part to stop the spread of the virus. But what about our words? With what we write? With how we speak? With how we tweet? Did we really do enough?
While the haredim look at the Balfour protests as an excuse to hold 1,000-strong weddings, does that really make sense? And even if it does for some people and for some reason, does it mean that you should endanger your life because someone else might be endangering theirs? Do ultra-Orthodox Israelis really not understand why protests are important to keep a government in check, especially during a pandemic? Do they really want to live in a country where people cannot voice their frustrations? After all, haredim historically have been some of the most prominent protesters this country has known.
As for the Israelis who are now threatening to not follow the rules: Yes, these draconian measures don’t always make sense, and I hear the argument that if someone can go to an indoor mikveh without chlorine, people should be allowed to go to an outdoor pool with chlorine. And I can understand, with four kids at home, how it can be frustrating to find out that yeshivot are still open while elementary and high schools are closed.
But have we tried to understand what the ritual of the mikveh means for a hassidic Jews? Does anyone bother to speak to their haredi neighbor to understand what it means not to be able to pray with their rabbi? Do haredim speak to their secular neighbors to understand what this lockdown means for them and their families?
Where is the compassion for which the Israeli people are famous? Where is the tolerance in which we used to pride ourselves? Where is the love we are commanded to show one another?
Unfortunately, it is lost. And we have to be honest: It has been lost for a long time, and it got that way because of how we behave as a people, but also because of the role models we have as political leaders. They speak about repairing the rift in society (they even claimed they would establish a special cabinet, which hasn’t once met), but they haven’t really done anything. Instead, they’ve helped the rift grow, they have nurtured it, and they have used it for personal gain.
Sadly, far too often, they put politics before the people and populism before the pandemic.
But we know it is supposed to be different. Deep down, after we break through the cynicism, we know what kind of country is supposed to be here.
We all watched the video of the Arab nurse reciting ma nishtana for patients in a geriatric ward the night of the Passover Seder in April, and knew what it meant. We saw the Arab doctor cradle a Torah scroll as he carried it into a coronavirus ward, and understood how things are really supposed to be. And we stared at the picture of the two medics praying next to their ambulance – one facing south on a prayer rug toward Mecca, and the other facing north with a tallit over his shoulders – and we imagined the kind of country we can still become.
These images are not made up, they are not fake. They are real, and they can be the real Israel.
We do not need a politician to tell us how to behave as a people, we know ourselves. It is in each and every one of us.
It is why we are who we are, and it is why we are where we are. It is why we have succeeded in creating a country that is different from any other place on this globe, and why being here gives everyone – from plumbers to lawyers and school teachers to doctors – a feeling that they are part of something bigger than just themselves.
This lockdown will not be easy, and this virus is not just going to disappear, but the virus of hate, dismission, rejection and condemnation can. It is up to us. It is Rosh Hashanah. We need to be better.
Shana Tova.