Michael Boyden

And Die By Them

We Jews are a cunning people. It was often only our craftiness that enabled us to survive in intolerable circumstances that demanded both ingenuity and the ability to think outside of the box.

It is those characteristics that have also helped Israelis build a thriving economy and prosper against amazing odds surrounded by enemies and on a dry patch of land with few natural resources.

However, it is those same qualities that are now endangering us as we face the challenge of COVID-19, because what we are dealing with here is not about how to beat the system but about how to survive.

Knowing that the lockdown would come into effect at lunchtime on Friday making it impossible for families to gather together on Erev Rosh Hashana, many chose to celebrate on Thursday evening.

Now that may seem clever, but it goes right against the very logic of the lockdown, which is about limiting our contact with one another and thereby reducing the risk of infection.

No one has been better at playing such tricks than the religious parties. While we are not permitted to go further than 500 meters from our homes, special permits have been granted to those leading services and shofar blowers so that they can go further afield and, if they are carrying the virus, spread it in other communities and towns.

It is that same crazy logic that will enable the markets selling the arba’a minim for Sukkot to operate after Yom Kippur. Once again, people will leave their neighbourhoods and mingle with one another as each of them selects his lulav and etrog.

Now the religious parties argue, and understandably so, that if protests are permitted outside the prime minister’s residence, why should they not be allowed to congregate and hold services? However, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Israel is in serious trouble and we ought not to be pressing for greater leniency because of the actions of others.

Health Minister, Yuli Edelstein, has announced that “We proudly permitted services to take place, so that Jews would be able to hear the sound of the shofar“. But there is nothing to be proud about in putting people’s lives at risk even if it enables Edelstein to score points with the religious parties.

Only three mitzvot are considered more important than life itself. We must not murder. We must not commit incest and we must not practise idolatry even if, as a consequence of not doing so, we forfeit our lives. Everything else is secondary.

However much we may want to hear the shofar and shake our arba’a minim, they are not not worth our putting our lives at risk for them. Those who believe that our health should be endangered in order to carry out these precepts are guilty of muddled thinking and seem to have forgotten what is really important.

Judaism places the preservation of life above nearly every commandment in the Torah, because, as Rashi explained, the laws are there for us to live by and not to die by.

About the Author
Made aliyah from the UK in 1985, am a former president of the Israel Council of Reform Rabbis and am currently rabbi of Kehilat Yonatan in Hod Hasharon, Israel.