Yom HaKippurim (The Day of Atonements) 2020 – A Double Lockdown

Three years ago, I published a post about Yom HaKipurrim, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. It was a sort of primer regarding this holiday, which is also the sixth of the prophetic holidays mentioned in the 23rd chapter of the Book of Leviticus.

As is the case every year, the country comes to a standstill. With the exception of exclusively Arab areas, all traffic stops, businesses are closed, synagogues are filled with the observant, who attend religious services regularly and consistently, and with the less observant, who attend services sporadically and sometimes, only on this day. There is a sense of reverence, of awe, congregations lifting up genuine and heartfelt prayers before the Throne of God, the King of the Universe, prayers of thanksgiving, of apology, of repentance. Ancient melodies are sung in unison, some with tears of sorrow, others with joy. The congregation rises when the closet containing the Holy Scriptures (Aron HaKodesh) is opened and they sit when it is closed. Particularly portions of the Bible are read that are significant to the them of the day: judgment. Multitudes try to fast for 25 hours, in an effort to atone for the sins of the past year. The long blast of the Shofar, the ram’s horn, signifying the end of this special day and the breaking of the fast with family members and often, with guests. The following day, the country returns to its normal pace,

This year was different. The country came to a standstill again, but it was at a 90% standstill for a week preceding Yom HaKippurim. Synagogues were not full, but practically empty. People were allowed to attend services, but only outside and in small groups (capsules). Even the Prime Minister suggested that people pray outside of the synagogue or at home. Those who chose to participate in the special services held on this day had to maintain a distance of two meters (just over 6 feet) from each other. It was a hot day and the worshippers needed to be outside for hours on end, rather than inside an air-conditioned facility. Not everyone heeded those instructions. Still, the special atmosphere that usually attends this solemn day was missing. 

Israel has been in a modified, national lockdown since just before Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the Jewish New Year, which began on Friday, September 18th. We are the first country to have a second, national lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic. After successfully tackling the first wave of the virus from February through mid-May, the rapid relaxation of the restrictions resulted in a rapid re-emergence of the virus. This small country has been experiencing between between 7,000-8,400 new cases per day for the past week. Hospitals are over-loaded and understaffed. Over 1,500 deaths have occurred since the beginning of the pandemic. I personally know people who have tested positive and others, including myself, who have had to be in isolation for up to two weeks because of exposure to someone who tested positive. Lockdown appeared to be the only reasonable measure to take in an effort to curtail the growing numbers of those infected. But, should it have been?

Throughout the past week, the out-of-control coronavirus shared the headlines with the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Some tried to compare the failures that led up to that war with the failures that led to the present health crisis, a crisis which gained Israel the reputation of having the highest infection rate per capita than any other country in the world. And, as of today, we even surpassed the United States in having the most coronavirus deaths per capita

Can we really compare the failures that brought about the military crisis in the Yom Kippur War and the health crisis of Yom Kippur 2020? I don’t think so. From a practical point of view, the present crisis is far worse. During and after the was of 1973, that took place on the most sacred day of the year, there were individuals who were held accountable for the intelligence and tactical failures. It took a little while, but the country assessed the tactical issues and dealt with them as they needed to do and the tide of the war turned. Despite the heavy loss of life, the nation recognized that the war needed to be fought effectively in order to win. There was no other option. It pulled together, worked together, fought together, mourned together and overcame together. Everyone recognized that they needed to cooperate and do their part in order to be victorious.

Not so with the war against the coronavirus of 2020. Leadership is lacking, responsibility is being blamed on “the other guy”. The numbers of dead and wounded are continually on the rise. But, the population is not behind the effort to win the war against the virus. From the leaders in the government to the people on the street, there is a lack of unity and a lack of clear direction how to fight. As a result, they end up fighting each other, rather than their common enemy. We see divisions and old polarizations, particularly between the religious and the secular segments of society, between those who blindly support the government and those who blindly oppose it, between those on the “right” and those on the “left”. Each faction claims to know best. But, no single segment of our society has exclusive rights to define how democracy should function or how one can exercise his faith. There are demonstrations that regularly take place against Prime Minister Netanyahu and the government’s handing of the health crisis. But, in doing do, they congregate together, most often without facial masks as a form of protest against the government, adding to the likelihood of widespread infection. Then, there are the religious factions, who largely ignore the rules of wearing a mask and social distancing. Not all, but enough.

So, it was almost inevitable that a nation-wide lockdown would be re-imposed, except for what is deemed to be an essential service. In the process, everyone is affected, men and women, young and old, school children (who may not be able to return to school until the end of the year), small businesses and many others. Unemployment remains extremely high. The economy is faltering and it may not be able to regain its strength for at least two years. Somebody needs to yell out “Stop. You’re fighting the wrong enemy. We can’t continue to fight against ourselves.” The divisions are being fuelled by the media, as usual, each with its own political perspective and agenda. Some want to bring down the government. Others want the protests and demonstrations to stop and give the government an opportunity to act like a government should. After all, they have their partisan interests at stake in causing the government to remain in power.

Yom HaKippurim is a day of introspection and soul-searching. It is a time to reflect on our sins, individual and national. It is a time to repent and to try to make things right. As long as we continue to fight against each other, the microscopic, silent killer that has invaded our land will continue to claim victims. The first lockdown was successful because the population saw that the danger was real and everyone was afraid of contracting the disease. Now, with theories debunking the seriousness of the coronavirus and the perspective that there are other, political issues that are more important than our health, people are doing what each considers to be right in his own sight.

We can make “peace agreements” with other countries in the Middle East. But, what good is it, if we can’t visit each other for fear of getting sick? Flights out of the country have been cancelled. The tourism industry here is at a standstill. Many businesses that rely on tourism during the holiday season (Passover through the Feast of Tabernacles – April to October) to make it through the year, are on the verge of collapse.

Less than a week ago, the Prime Minister stated: “We are at war – the Corona War . . . Only if we work together can we deal the virus – and we will defeat it.”

Those are not empty words. Israel knows how to fight a war. It requires, among other things, cooperation and determination on a national scale. We are a small family and cannot afford internal disunity. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1)

Yom Kippur is a time of that is particularly appropriate to forgiveness, seeking it from God and from one another and granting it to others. Asking for forgiveness is a humbling experience. But, a little humility, when genuine, can go a long way. 

“[If] My people, who are called by My name, humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14).

Knowing who we are; humbling ourselves; praying; seeking God; turning away from evil. Sounds like it fits perfectly with Yom HaKippurim. That shouldn’t be too hard. Or, maybe we don’t believe it because it sounds too easy. 

Why is it that the lessons we learn the best in life are the ones that hurt us the most or cost us the most. 

Bless, be blessed and be a blessing.



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