When it comes to COVID-19, things have already become pretty lax here in Israel. It’s true that the government just eased the restrictions, which was very welcome after the two nights of total lockdown over Pesach.
But much to my dismay, the easing appears to have started well before any official announcement, in fact, as early as last week, it wasn’t hard to find families playing in parks and schoolyards when we weren’t meant to go any farther than 100 yards from our house, unless absolutely necessary. For those of us following the government’s directives, this was a hard thing to witness.
Due to this knowledge, I should not have been shocked to hear the sounds of a minyan this past Shabbat on my way to perform a Brit Milah. At that time, prior to the ease of the restrictions, it was illegal to pray as a community — a reality none of us ever thought possible in the Jewish homeland. But like most other countries, we have to separate to slow the spread of the virus.
In an alternate universe where this virus had never existed, I would have smiled upon hearing Jews keeping God’s commandments. But not this time. The sound infuriated me. I couldn’t help but think, “Don’t these people know they’re ruining it for all of us? All of our hard work is being thrown away.” I couldn’t imagine anything more selfish than this.
When I arrived at the family’s home for the Brit Milah, the father remarked that there was an illegal minyan next door. It probably frustrated him as well, and rightfully so. His son’s Bris was about to take place with fewer adults than were praying next door. One of our happiest Smachot, usually attended by every family member and friend who can, was being held with just six adults, all donning protective masks. My heart ached at how lonely it felt, cramped into their small apartment with the grandparents banished to the porch for safety.
But then I heard it — people were singing joyous songs outside. At first, I thought “what are the odds that another family has a special occasion so close by, in the era of Coronavirus?” The father turned to me as if he knew what I was thinking and said, “Those are our neighbors. They’re singing for us.” I was overwhelmed. The melodies of fellow Jews, singing in unison, rose up and surrounded us throughout the whole ceremony. The father eagerly ran out to the porch and announced the baby’s name for those who were too remote to hear its first proclamation.
In one fell swoop, I went from being wholly despondent at the state of our great nation, to being completely certain that we will defeat this disease. It was an emotional moment and I was thankful to be part of it. But I’d be remiss not to point out that we’re far from in the clear. I do believe that humanity will win in this viral war, but we’ve still got a long way to go.
What we must all keep in mind is that all of the social distancing is not intended to protect each of us individually. The great majority of us may contract the virus at one point or another. But our duty is to our neighbors. These restrictions are meant to protect the most vulnerable amongst us; those at high risk, who, if infected, are most susceptible to the worst-case scenario. We wear masks and keep our distance to save as many elderly and infirm as possible. And I can’t think of anything more Jewish than that.
When I spent my first year learning in yeshiva, we studied a classic section of the Talmud, Mesechet Bava Batra. I poured over pages — hour after hour — detailing topics such as who is responsible to pay for a fence between two privately owned properties. That is, if one neighbor desires privacy from the other, and wants a fence erected between the two areas, then both owners split the cost of the fence. Not the most spiritual uplifting topic for one’s first deep dive into Jewish text. That was, until the rosh yeshiva’s final speech of the year.
The head of our school outlined the underpinnings of the year’s learning. In places like America, the legal focus is on “my rights.” If Bava Batra had been written in modern America, it would list a person’s ability to build a fence on his property with his own money and how his neighbor couldn’t stop him. But those are not Jewish values. Our responsibility is to the other – what can or must I do for him or her. Therefore, both property owners must split the cost of the fence, even though only one party desires it.
The same applies to our current situation with Coronavirus restrictions. Our duty is not to ourselves. It’s not about what I want, whether it be playing in the schoolyard or davening in a minyan. Our responsibility is to our fellow person; to those who may be more susceptible to COVID-19 than we are.
So, if we have to keep our special occasions to a bare minimum, then so be it. And all we can hope for is that our neighbors will come to their balconies and lift our spirits, just a little bit, with songs of praise.