What timing! In the first wave of Covid-19, we spent Passover in lockdown and didn’t get to celebrate it with our extended families, the way Jewish families have been doing for centuries. I warned then that unless we learn the lesson that the virus is trying to teach us, we will suffer from an even worse outbreak.
We didn’t learn a thing. The whole world looked at us in Israel in awe as we nearly eliminated the virus, eased the lockdown, and went back to normal life. But “normal” life was the reason that got us Covid in the first place, so it returned with a vengeance. Now, once again the world stares at us, but for the opposite reason. We have become a role model of incompetence, with more infections per capita than any other nation—from the zenith to the nadir in a matter of months.
These days, the days of the High Holidays, the second period of the year when Jewish families come together, we are going into full lockdown once again. Nature has turned our hubris against us and made Israel the world’s laughing stock.
To understand how we “earned” nature’s admonition, we need to understand who are the people of Israel, where we come from, and what is our role. Maimonides, Midrash Rabbah, and many other sources tell us that during the time of Abraham the Patriarch, Abraham would observe his countryfolk building the Tower of Babylon, where he had lived. He noticed that the builders were growing increasingly alienated from each other, which prompted him to search for an explanation. The book Pirkey de Rabbi Eliezer (Chapter 24) writes that the Babylonians “wanted to speak to one another but did not know each other’s language. What did they do? Each took up his sword, and they fought each other to death. Indeed, half the world was slaughtered there, and from there they scattered all over the world.”
The hatred among Abraham’s people troubled him. He reflected on the plight of his people and realized that the intensification of the ego was the cause of their hatred. To overcome it, he called on his people to increase their cohesion to match the growth of the ego. In Mishneh Torah (Chapter 1), Maimonides describes this as Abraham beginning “to provide answers to the people of Ur of the Chaldeans,” explaining why their society was disintegrating and what they could do about it.
However, Abraham’s answers did not please everyone in Babylon. The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah) tells us that Nimrod, king of Babylon, tried to persuade Abraham that he was wrong. When the king failed, he expelled Abraham from Babylon.
But as the exiled Abraham wandered toward Canaan, people “gathered around him and asked him about his words,” writes Maimonides. “He taught everyone … until thousands and tens of thousands assembled around him, and they are the people of the house of Abraham. He planted this tenet in their hearts, composed books about it, and taught his son, Isaac. And Isaac sat and taught and warned, and informed Jacob, and appointed him a teacher, to sit and teach… And Jacob our Father taught all his sons.” That was the beginning of the people of Israel, but it still does not explain our role in the world.
A few centuries after Abraham, Moses wanted to do the same as his predecessor. He aspired to unite the people of Israel, and faced Pharaoh’s fierce resistance. Like Abraham before him, Moses fled with his people, except this time there were millions of them. Under Moses, the Hebrew tribes united and became a nation, but only after they committed to be “as one man with one heart.”
Moreover, immediately after they united and became a nation, the people of Israel were tasked with passing the method of unity to the entire world in order to complete what Abraham intended to achieve when he first began to speak of unity above hatred. “Moses wished to complete the correction of the world at that time. … However, he did not succeed because of the corruptions that occurred along the way,” wrote Ramchal in his commentary on the Torah. But once Israel achieved unity, they were tasked with passing it on, or as the Torah put it, with being “a light unto nations.”
We often like to think that our responsibility to the world is a thing of the past. It is not. Both antisemites blame us for their troubles, and our sages blame us for the troubles that the nations make for us. Our role, to bring the light of unity to the world, is as valid now as it’s always been. The book Sefat Emet writes that “The children of Israel became guarantors to correct the entire world … everything depends on the children of Israel,” and many other books by our sages write similarly.
If we look at what is happening in Israel today, it is easy to see that we desperately need mutual guarantee, the unity that had made us into a nation. Without it, we are not a nation, we are not “a light unto nations,” and both we and the world suffer.
This abandonment of the mutual guarantee among us “earned us” Covid’s admonition. It is so easy to see that had we all cared for one another just a little bit, we would have taken the minimum precautions not to infect one another and the plague would stop. And just as we were a great example in the first wave and nearly curbed the virus, we are the worst example in the second wave, the “darkness unto nations.”
This coming Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), we needn’t regret our sins so we can start the new year with a clean slate, ready to sin again. We need to recognize what is the only sin that we are committing, and commit to stop it. And that only sin is our lack of mutual guarantee, our unfounded hatred of each other, our alienation and cruelty toward our brethren. If we commit to trying to stop it, to reverse our attitude from negative to positive, the next year will be Covid free. We will defeat it through our unity, and suffer if we stay apart.
And as we are now a bad example, when we unite, we will become once more “a light unto nations,” and truly win the world’s approval.