Sunday, January 16th | 14 Shevat 5782

September 24, 2020 5:33 am

COVID-19 in Israel: Days of Awe — and Loopholes

avatar by Ruthie Blum /


Hospital staff provide medical care for patients at a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) ward, amid a surge in new cases that has forced Israel into a second nationwide lockdown, at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center (Ichilov), Tel Aviv, Israel, Sept. 21, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun.

JNS.orgAhead of Israel’s nationwide lockdown that was to go into effect on Friday at 2pm — a mere four hours before the beginning of Rosh Hashanah — many families who knew that the coronavirus regulations would prevent them from getting together for the holiday decided to celebrate a day early.

So it was that people across the country enjoyed their traditional Jewish New Year evening meal on Thursday. Viewed as a sweet and creative way to adhere to the rules without forfeiting a cherished custom, these gatherings became a highlight of human-interest features in the media.

Feel-good stories have been hard to come by these days, and this one provided a perfect apples-and-honey counterpoint to the otherwise bleak reports of spiking COVID-19 morbidity rates and a rising death toll — not to mention the endless reports of all the people planning on violating any and all government directives.

Never mind that the virus doesn’t stop spreading in accordance with Health Ministry deadlines, which in any case seem arbitrary at best, since they are determined through fights and compromises between political officials and medical experts. As soon as the authorities announced a date and time after which it would be forbidden to convene with relatives, much of the public took the opportunity to cram into small apartments with parents, children, and grandchildren before the blowing of the proverbial whistle — and shofar.

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Indeed, with fear of the illness at an all-time low and sectarian antagonism higher than ever, Israelis have been acting as though the only thing they have to worry about for the next three weeks (if not longer, depending on whether the lockdown is extended) is coming up with convincing lies about why they’re not at home.

Contagion isn’t foremost on their minds. Police barricades and fines, on the other hand, are of great concern — except among those protesting the continued premiership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that is. Exempt from the rules that apply to everyone else — on the grounds that it is their “democratic right” to demonstrate — they appear to believe that cloaking themselves in moral superiority prevents infection.

The same goes for certain haredi (ultra-Orthodox) groups, incensed at having their religious freedom hindered by limitations placed on the number of participants in prayer and study sessions. Observing the masses of anti-Netanyahu crowds, some of them have placed “protest” signs outside their synagogues to make a statement.

Ditto for restaurant and bar owners. Believing that the government is more lenient toward religious Jews, due to pressure from haredi coalition partners, some of these small-business people — furious about being forced to close their establishments — are rebranding themselves as synagogues. Others complain that beachgoers have been able to party with impunity as long as they wave banners demanding that Netanyahu resign.

Then there are the individuals who criticize their neighbors for breaking the rules while making excuses for their own infringements.

Meanwhile, the press is against shutting down the economy for the second time since April, but is simultaneously playing up the soaring infection rates and dire state of the hospitals, which will be unable to contend with the heavy influx of patients in serious condition.

In other words, everyone is blaming everyone else, and nobody is looking in the mirror. It’s not exactly the spirit of the Days of Awe, when Jews mark the New Year by asking to be written in the proverbial Book of Life.

This brings us to the upcoming highest of Jewish holy days, Yom Kippur, when God hopefully grants that request. In order for this to happen, we must fast for 25 hours and pray for almost as many. The idea is to make the body physically uncomfortable and the soul more receptive to introspection.

But in the lead-up to atoning for our sins before God, we request forgiveness from the human beings around us whom we have hurt or wronged in some way, even if inadvertently. The purpose of the whole process is purification and renewal — starting the year with a clean slate.

Given the current state of affairs, when disdain for and judgementalism towards others remains at a fever pitch, it’s a particularly important time for Israelis to engage in this process. Sadly, however, resentment impedes self-reflection, and remorse is impossible to experience while looking for loopholes.

Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring’.

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