‘As a Well Robbed by Buckets’: The Battle for the Human Spirit in the Days of COVID-19

My poverty is as a well / whose heart has been robbed by buckets.

They said: You’ve lived your life already / a toil for good and bad,

And what will make you grimace / drunken bird?

  • Abraham Chalfi

“A Man in Whom Is the Spirit”: The Importance of Moral Leadership

We should be proud of our moral decisions that characterize our lives at this moment. Humanity has decided to place public health before the economy; the sanctity of life and human dignity above selfish interests. This is the essence of moral decisions—the ability to transcend our egoistic interests for the good of others. There is always a price to pay for moral choices and in this instance, it is much heavier than usual—the quarantining of an entire population and urbanites forced to remain alone; the dead who could not receive a proper burial by their relatives and friends; an at-risk population that cannot receive an adequate response; medical tests and treatments that have been delayed; unemployment climbing at frightening rates and the economic damage that many families are suffering. Every passing day intensifies the situation, not only demanding a higher price, but interest as well—by eroding our spirits. Our readiness to sacrifice so much for the safety of at-risk groups is dependent on our ability to pay a significant price. It must be understood that—alongside the battle concerning emergency management—there are three more existential battles waging: a medical battle against the virus, an economic battle against poverty, and a moral battle for the human spirit.

None of these fronts should be neglected. The problem is that the proposed solutions for each issue conflict with one another and create further dilemmas. Considerable resources are being expended on behalf of the health and economic fronts and professional teams are managing them—so we are witnessing on a daily-basis the struggle between the Ministry of Health and the Treasury. However, concerning the human spirit front we hear too little, far too little. Obviously, the decision makers also have moral intuitions and their legal advisers fill in some of their shortcomings. Regarding cardinal health issues, the Ministry of Health is aided by guidelines of The National Committee of Bioethics of the Israeli Medical Association. However, there is no Minister of Spirit or Minister of Morality around the decision-maker’s table. Currently, the burden of moral criticism primarily falls on the media and the public. Spirit and morality are not operational systems and do not need offices, but it is precisely in times of crisis that it is necessary to elevate these issues and represent them.

Times of crisis are ripe for ignoring moral considerations—declaring an emergency, taking over additional powers by government officials, violating individual freedoms, and making radical decisions with long-term implications jeopardize the foundations on which society rests. This does not mean that extreme measures should be avoided in the extreme situation that we are in, but they must be accepted while exercising value-based judgment. I believe, for example, that the defaulting of nursing homes could have been avoided had moral specialists  been involved in decision-making; I would hope that such representatives would also alert of the failure of our public leaders—concerning both the violation of the directives given to the public, in favor of their relatives, and the political squabbling concerning the proposed unity government, which if imploded may lead to a fourth election. But most of all, it is necessary to cultivate the moral front to preserve human dignity.

Essential Workers and Expendable People

This is the paradox that confronts us: The medical battle being waged for the sake of human dignity threatens this very value. I would like to take a moment to talk semantics—not because it is the most important subject, but because it reflects a primary issue. One of the terms that this crisis has created—or at the least raised from obscurity—is the locution “essential worker” (oved ḥiyuni) This locution was created based on the “Emergency Employment Service Law,” which regulates the workforce in times of emergency. Subsequently, the Ministry of Labor, Welfare and Social Services issued “essential workplace” certificates to factories and institutions. Hence, the workers in these factories were quickly termed “essential workers.” However, the law does not mention “essential workers.” On the contrary, the language of the law refers to the “work service” required of the employed in an emergency. This way of describing work was especially suited for the ethos of an enlisted company and the service provided for society when the law was passed in 1967. It’s no wonder the locution has changed. The “essential worker” is more fitting of the individualistic ethos currently prevalent.

In my opinion this is a destructive locution. The Hebrew term ḥiyuni although translated as essential is better understood as vital. Just as in English vital has two meanings, so too ḥiyuni: (1) necessary; (2) full of life. The employment of this term at this time does not only distinguish between essential workers and non-essential workers, but it is likely to also signify those who are to maintain their fullness of life and those who are have theirs wither away. I was unsurprised by the army jokes made at the expense of the “unnecessary” soldiers released to their homes at this time. The rest of society is not laughing. In civilian life the other side of the necessary worker is the feeling of shame and insult of the extraneous person. Almost every job dismissal at any time is an experience of disempowerment. However, one’s sense of self-worth is compensated by maintaining vitality in other areas of activity, seeking work, and finding a new job. The national crisis makes the job dismissal less personal, since it is part of the collective experience; but simultaneously, it greatly limits the possibility of one taking the initiative, looking after their family’s economic needs, and restoring their self-esteem.

The Struggle for Recognition: Self-Confidence, Self-Respect, Self-Esteem

To understand this, I would like to briefly draw upon the thought of contemporary philosopher, Axel Honneth, who argues that human struggle is not primarily for the betterment of one’s quality of life, but first and foremost for recognition. Every person is in need of self-confidence, self-respect, and self-esteem. According to Honneth, they are attainable through other people recognizing us. The recognition made by others grants us a basic need for a healthy and quality life. The process of recognition stands on three legs: love, rights (law), and solidarity. Love from relatives and friends gives a person self-confidence; the law perceives all citizens equally, gives them equal rights, and imposes the same restrictions on them, thereby giving a person self-respect; organic solidarity, based on a division of labor between social factors and mutual need, attaches importance to each individual’s contribution to the social fabric—granting them self-esteem. Thus, societal recognition grants self-confidence in one’s ability to act, self-respect to be fundamentally considered as an equal among equals, and self-esteem that gives one their own unique character and social gravitas.

In contrast, a hierarchical society, based on functional relationships, creates the reality of transparent people who are unnoticed, disrespected, and undervalued. Hate, disdain, or disregard for one’s existence threatens self-confidence; applying social norms unequally to different groups disavows the disadvantaged groups; lack of solidarity and social hostility causes a lack of recognition of the importance of various ways of life and their contribution to the social fabric, thus undermining self-esteem.

Times of crisis are times of calamities. The social diplomacy is disrupted, and the emergency can manifest itself in the dehumanization of broad publics, including those for whom the bulk of the effort is invested. The analysis of morbidity rates and economic data makes patients objects. The fear is that in this anti-virus chess match humans will become tools and lose their divine image. Therefore, most of the moral effort now must be invested in preserving human dignity, through social recognition and fostering self-esteem.

“They Shall Share Alike”: Mutual Recognition Under Attack

Inspiration for this can be drawn from the book of books. The Bible tells of a battle that King David waged against Amalek. The Amalekites raided the southern city of Ziklag, burned it, looted it, and took captive its inhabitants. David pursued them with six hundred soldiers, however, two hundred of them were stuck and unable to cross the Besor river. David successfully pursued the Amalekites due to an Egyptian slave who was abandoned by his Amalek master, due to his illness. David’s soldiers gave him bread, water, a piece of fig cake, and two clusters of raisins and they swore that they would not harm him. In return, the slave led them to the Amalek camp. David and his soldiers rescued the prisoners and defeated the Amalekites. When they returned, the soldiers who had stayed behind came out. Instead of rebuking them, David saluted them. Immediately afterward the Bible depicts a quarrel that erupted among the soldiers:

Then all the corrupt and worthless fellows among the men who had gone with David said, “Because they did not go with us, we will not give them any of the spoil that we have recovered, except that each man may take his wife and children, and leave.” But David said, “You shall not do so, my brothers, with what the Lord has given us; he has preserved us and handed over to us the raiding party that attacked us. Who would listen to you in this matter? For the share of the one who goes down into the battle shall be the same as the share of the one who stays by the baggage; they shall share alike.” (I Sam. 30:22–24)

This is where the story ends, but the Bible comments on its historical value: “From that day forward he made it a statute and an ordinance for Israel; it continues to the present day” (I Sam. 30:25).

The story draws on its rhetorical, religious, and moral power. King David led his soldiers into battle and took the greatest risk. However, he did not take the credit for himself. He understood that much depended on luck—or if we will—God. He only managed to locate the Amalek camp due to their treatment of a slave as less than a human. The sick slave was abandoned by his master to die of starvation—he has not eaten for three days until David’s soldiers reinvigorated his spirits. Recognition of the Egyptian slave’s needs enabled the prisoners to be rescued. So, too, the unsuccessful soldiers received full recognition from their commander. They gained not only a reunion with their family members, but also an equal share of the spoils. Opponents of this division, the deriders of the soldiers who were ultimately unnecessary, are termed corrupt. The corrupt people, even though they fought the enemy, are called worthless. Perhaps necessary in battle, but harmful in decent society.

David did not suspend humane relations during a crisis, he even used this time to miraculously recognize the soldiers on the wayside. Can we think of ways in which we can act in this spirit and manifest it into contemporary Israeli ethos?

The Vitality of a Civil Society in Times of Crisis

The government employees managing the crisis are working with great dedication and considerable personal vitality. However, my impression is that the government is managing the crisis in a much too centralized and patronized manner. The Ministry of Health and the National Security Council are treating citizens primarily as potential violators of their directives. The Ministry of Finance refers to citizens primarily as an additional economic burden. Both do not recognize the need for a vital civil society. They transmit to the vast majority of citizens—shut yourselves in your homes, settle for the minimum support you receive, and do not interfere with the work of “The Essential Workers.” The most notable exception is the Ministry of Defense, which has enlisted beyond its immediate circle from reservists who have organized blood drives to the conversion of hotels into quarantine facilities, which also expands civic engagement and places some responsibility on COVID-19 carriers themselves. However, here again we have a centralized model.

There is another way, which sees citizens as partners and thereby empower them. The most basic thing, of course, is to broadcast to citizens that their sacrifice is itself a fight against the virus—which is done too little. But beyond that, there are significant options for the activation of and partnering with civil society in this struggle. Thus, for example, the spread of the virus in the ultra-Orthodox (Ḥaredi) sector could be dealt with more effectively. It was essential to pause the fighting with the Hatzalah organization and utilize its many ultra-Orthodox volunteers to advance health policy among ultra-Orthodox populations. Adv. Tziona Koenig-Yair, who previously served as the National Commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) in the Israeli government, drew my attention to the fact that in ultra-Orthodox enclaves women are responsible for running daily-life and that it was a mistake not to incorporate them into battling the virus. Of course, government directives need to be enforced and followed as well—but would it not be right to involve more citizens, especially in neighborhoods and communities where the police have difficulty operating? Is it not right to use the Civil Guard and other volunteer organizations in accordance with set procedures and even expand their ranks in places where increased contact with the population is needed? Any such suggestion, of course, also leads to the fear of losing control. In my opinion, this concern is due to a distrust in the vitality of civil society. I believe that trusting in and empowering civil society under strict guidelines would increase control, precisely by enlisting their efforts.

The preservation of civic vitality is also correct for the economic front. More than 946,000 new jobseekers signed up for unemployment benefits from the beginning of March and the unemployment rate exceeded 26%. Social Security is required to pay unemployment benefits and the Treasury is formulating ambitious plans including unprecedented government spending. It is hoped that the growing circle of those affected will receive support that will enable them to overcome the crisis, but they will still not be recognized as vital and necessary. Here, too, is another way. Instead of subsidizing the unemployed, it is worth subsidizing labor— as was the case in New Zealand, for example. In the present situation, where the laid off cannot improve their situation by looking for an alternative job—preserving the possibility of a part-time job will give some employees the recognition of their vitalness. In Germany, the government has subsidized the transition to part-time work and the marginal costs of shift work. In Israel, the stronger unions have been able prevent dismissal from the government. As in any crisis, the main casualties are the most vulnerable workers. Employers should strive to avoid unnecessary layoffs and the government must create the conditions for doing so. Thus, employers can be encouraged to harness everyone who receives a partial salary both for generating income in new and creative ways and for the benefit of societal needs during the crisis. These mechanisms should not only help restore the economy, but also, they would be a step in recognizing and maintaining the vitality of the spirit.

Ultimately, we do not know how long the crisis will last and how severe the prices will be to pay. We must keep in mind that no less than our investment in the medical and economic situations must be our investment in the human spirit. The strength of each and every one of us and society as a whole in this crisis depends on trusting each other, nurturing our civil society, and granting meaningfulness to the decisions that are made.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shraga Bar-On is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and the director of the institute's David Hartman Center for Intellectual Excellence. He co-heads the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis and a faculty member at Shalem College in Jerusalem, Israel.
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