Avi Liberman

When I got kicked out of Shabbat dinner… almost

I might get in trouble for this one but I’m honestly tired of having to shut up about it. I honestly feel this has nothing to do with politics and is simple history and basic comparisons. I’m not really sure when the former was all of a sudden ignored by of all groups, Jews and Americans, and when the later was ignored by basically everyone.

I was invited to a Shabbat dinner in Israel — I won’t say where or in what city, but it was a very nice group of people. This was about a month after Rosh Hashanah and the topic of the Jews who go to Uman Ukraine came up. For those who do not know, upwards of 30,000 followers of Rabbi Nachman, mostly, but not all, Breslev Hasidim flock to his grave sight to pray every year for that holiday. I don’t come from that tradition of Judaism and never quite understood praying at graves. God can’t hear if you pray somewhere else? If it inspires someone though, God bless and enjoy.

Needless to say, upon return to Israel many of the people tested positive for COVID. Some had concocted phony results showing they were negative, as it’s the Ukraine and not exactly the bastion of modern accurate and honest medical testing. I’ll be the first to admit that’s a jerk move. The anger from the people at the dinner however, bordered on rage for the people who went at all, even for those who came back negative. “They shouldn’t have gone in the first place!” “People are obviously going to get COVID and come back here!” Person after person railed about the group, angry that they had dared make the trip. This is where I almost got kicked out.

I was about to pipe up and say, “Look, if you think that your health and safety are more important than their freedom, you are sorely mistaken.” I remember catching myself and not saying it because they were so angry (and hosting for that matter) so I just shut up. Now, you might be reading what I just said and not agree, but you’re lying to yourself, especially if you are Jewish, let alone American.

I remember being at another dinner and a man with children in their early 20s was in full support of the government policies that had shut down numerous things over COVID. I asked him if he sent his kids to the army. He said of course he did. I then asked, “How can you do that? Isn’t that dangerous? What kind of responsible parent are you? What if they get hurt or God forbid worse? Can you give me a 99.8% guarantee that your kids will be safe in the army? Because, that’s the survival rate with COVID… and that’s without the shots.” He had no response and didn’t know what to say. He stammered for a second until we both agreed that obviously there are some things that are worth fighting, and yes… putting yourself, and even your children in danger for.

Let’s take a look at the comparison part, which I first brought up and then we’ll talk about the history. COVID in comparison is less dangerous than joining the Israeli army, driving a car, and for kids, swimming in a pool. They have a greater chance of dying being mauled by a dog than from COVID. Those are simple numbers you can look up, and feel free to do so. That your freedoms are being stripped over something that is so minuscule in comparison to other risks we take is an absurdity. As of the writing of this, one person has died of the new Omicron variant globally. Let me repeat that, one person… in the WHOLE WORLD has died of Omicron. Yet we sit back and let Israel and other states in the US make new regulations limiting our freedoms and throwing people’s lives into chaos, and worst of all, many people tolerate it. It’s not just absurd, but shameful based on our common history.

I almost died in a car accident a few months ago, which was no fault of mine. I would never stand on my high horse and scream at you, “Getting in your car is selfish! What if you run over a child?! Take public transportation!! How many people need to die before you stop driving!?” I could do that, but I won’t because you have a right to travel and be free, and with that freedom comes risk. As Jews we taught the world about freedom, and as Americans we further expanded on it. Americans taught the world there is nothing more important than freedom, and sorry, but that includes your safety and health.

When I was in the hospital, sure the pain sucked, sure it was hard, but when you strip down what is most difficult about being sick, it’s the loss of your freedom. I was chained to a bed and couldn’t do what I wanted. When people are sick whether temporary or long term, it’s that much lees freedom they have. That is what makes being sick so terrible, the loss of freedom.

As far as how important freedom is, I remember being taught in school as a little kid there were Jews who said we should have stayed in Egypt. “It’ll be dangerous if we go into the desert! We have food to eat in Egypt! There will be battles and PLAGUE (sound familiar) so just stay here!” Those Jews are mocked to this day. Yes, your freedom will require fighting, and suffering through illness, and God was sending us the message that is the price you sometimes pay for it. Echoed by George Washington, FDR, and numerous others, “Better to live on your feet than die on your knees.” Staying a slave in Egypt and just doing what you’re told was not acceptable then, and it shouldn’t be acceptable now, in spite of the risks, which as pointed out are miniscule in comparison to others we endure every day.

I once got into a discussion with a girl from South Africa and asked if she had ever been to the US. She said she had no interest. When I asked why she said, “Well, you Americans think your country is better than everyone else’s.” She was smiling about it and the conversation was casual and not combative but I shot right back, “I don’t think it. It’s a fact, and you’ll prove it to me.” With that, still polite, she was curious how that would work. I simply stated to her that the United States is not the biggest country, doesn’t have the most people, gold, oil, natural gas, farm land, rare earth minerals, and on and on about what it didn’t have. All that said it still manages to dominate the world, economically, militarily, in start-ups, entertainment, sports, women’s achievements, minority achievements, and on and on. And keep in mind; the US was a colony for God’s sake. It’s not some massive empire and I’m pretty sure we’re not exploiting Guam and the US Virgin Islands for all they’re worth. I simply asked her one question, “How do you explain that?” She sat there dumbfounded thinking, and I finally chimed in. “We have more freedom than you (at least we used to) and that makes it a better country.”

Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson envisioned the seal of the United States involving the splitting of the Red Sea and the Exodus. Freedom from slavery and bondage has always been a central theme in America and especially in Judaism. Last I checked we have a holiday celebrating it. I checked the whole calendar and still can’t find a holiday that celebrates our health and safety. Are they both important? Obviously. Are your health and safety more important than your freedom? No. And it’s a hard NO.

While I disagree with the practice of praying at gravesites and it’s not my tradition, freedom of religion, last I checked is a pretty big thing. The Breslev Hasidim have a right to travel and pray how they want and where they want, in spite of your fears, and yes even at the risk of you contracting a virus you have no more chance of dying from than getting into a car every day. You may not believe that your freedom is more important than your health or safety, but it is. The former gives you the opportunities to God willing enjoy the later. As Jews and Americans we were founded on that principle. “Live Free or Die!” It isn’t “Live Safely or Die!” “Give me Liberty or Give Me Death!” “It’s not “Give Me Health or Give Me Death!” Those phrases used to mean something. They still should. As an American, you should be proud of them. And as a Jew, and as an Israeli, if you don’t believe your freedom comes before anything else, stop sending your kids to the army, and skip Passover, because you don’t believe in either one. The COVID regulations put in place are a mockery of all we once stood for and our own histories will refute any argument you give me that says otherwise. I’m hoping our own “leaders” will soon see that.

About the Author
Avi Liberman is a stand-up comic who was born in Israel, raised in Texas and now lives in Los Angeles. Avi founded Comedy for Koby, a bi-annual tour of Israel featuring some of America's top stand-up comedians.
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