Written by: Rabbi Stewart Weiss
“For I have seen this People, and this is a stiff-necked People.” (Exodus 32:9).
We Jews have a lot of nick-names. We are called Hebrews, Mosaics, the People of the Book, the Chosen People. But perhaps the most cutting adjective used to describe us is stubbornness. We are adaptable, but largely inflexible. We are brilliant, but have problems seeing – let along adopting – someone else’s point of view. We are perfectly willing to give orders to others, but have an awful lot of trouble following the orders given to us.
Perfect case in point: the Corona crisis in which all of us are caught. We have been explicitly told by the Health Ministry what we can and cannot do, in order to both guard ourselves and those around us, but it is oh so hard to stick to the regulations. Even the ones who issue those very same orders – the Prime Minister, the President, the Health Minister, the head of the police – have been caught violating them. And everyone, of course, has a valid reason for their transgression:
”My son ‘sometimes’ sleeps at home.”
“My kids bring me food when I need it;”
“I just happened to be in a synagogue where more than 10 men showed up;” and on and on.
I was appalled that one of the columnists in the Jerusalem Post had the audacity to write that he was trying to bring his kids to spend Seder with him, since they had already completed 14 days of isolation – a clear and flagrant breach of the rules.
And as for masks, and the new ordinance that they must be worn outside at all times by all people? Well, despite the claim that “93% of Israelis are complying,” my own anecdotal experience tells a far different story. At least two of every three people we saw while going to get food last week were not wearing masks. Some actually had them around their neck, but not covering their mouth and nose. And – surprise, surprise! – they all had “good” reasons for being remiss when I asked them why they weren’t wearing their mask.
”Oh, I meant to take it, but I forgot.”
“I’m just going 100 meters, so what’s the big deal?”
“It makes it hard for me to breathe – do you want me to suffocate?!”
And, I kid you not, even this: “I’m purposely not wearing a mask; it spreads the virus more than it stops it. I know, my brother is a doctor and he told me!”
Why follow the professionals, the doctors and scientists who studied for decades on the subject when you know better!
This isolation is tough on all of us, to be sure. This week, for the first and hopefully last time, we will not be able to visit our son’s grave on Yom HaZikaron, because such a gathering would invariably be accompanied by large groups hugging and kissing one another, and that could only create more illness and suffering. We’ll cry at home, alone, but we’ll get through it, because for the bereaved, every day is Memorial Day.
Perhaps it’s a good thing that there is now a 200 nis fine in effect for failure to wear a mask; I only hope that the rule will be enforced. Because, as a policeman told me soon after I made Aliya and received a traffic ticket, arguing unsuccessfully to be let off, just this one time, ”In this country, people only learn when they pay a price.” And how right he was.
Yet as onerous and vexing as this social disobedience can be, stubbornness has another side to it, and can actually be a virtue. Indeed, it may be – apart from Divine providence – the single greatest reason why we have survived as a people, and as a nation, for so long. Because when our backs have been against the wall, with the odds against us and the whole world writing us off, our necks tightened and we stood firm, determined to prove everyone wrong.
I am writing these words on Yom Hashoa. Though we endured the worst horrors in history, we did not succumb, we “raged, raged, raged against the dying of the light,” to paraphrase Dylan Thomas. Despite the unfortunate characterization of Jews “being led to the slaughter like sheep,” history shows otherwise. In thousands of cases, even as the gun was pointed at our head, we did not submit meekly. Perhaps we said a prayer, uttered Shma Yisrael, affirming our faith before the Germans who struggled obsessively to eradicate it. Perhaps we tried valiantly to escape, despite the chance of succeeding being slim, at best. Or we fought back, as we did in numerous camps and ghettoes.
In a valiant attempt to rouse the remaining Jews of Warsaw to stand up against the Nazis, Rabbi Menachem Ziemba, one of the leaders of Agudat Yisrael in the ghetto, made the following impassioned speech, just before the uprising, which began on April 19, 1943:
“There are different ways to sanctify the name of God. If it was demanded that the Jews convert, like in Spain in the days of the Inquisition, and one could save one-self by conversion, our death would constitute a Kiddush Hashem. But today, the only way to sanctify the name of God is to offer armed resistance.” (Flags Over the Warsaw Ghetto, Moshe Arens, page 151).
And this same stubborn spirit has stood by us through the creation of the State of Israel and its defense by our holy, courageous soldiers. Ben Gurion expressed it when he met with a group of Allied military officers, who strongly advised him to refrain from declaring independence. “Only a miracle would save you from the hostile nations around you,” they warned him. Ben Gurion smiled and said, “A miracle?! If that’s all it will take, then I have no worries. We Jews have plenty of those!”
And I heard the same spirit of stubbornness when our late son’s commanding officer spoke to the unit at their Tekes Kumta, the beret ceremony at the end of their basic training. It was just one month after the start of what would become known as the Second Intifada, the bloody campaign waged by the Palestinians, a war that they had duplicitously prepared for following the disastrous Oslo Agreement that resulted in 1200 Israelis being murdered and almost 9000 wounded, 80% of them civilians. I can still hear the colonel’s voice as he turned and addressed us, the parents:
“We have entered a difficult period, and I won’t delude any of you. Your sons will be asked to fight, and it will not be easy. They are our first line of defense, the wall of strength and determination that surrounds our entire country. They must be resolute, tough, unbending, fierce and unrelenting. They can never give in, for that would mean the end of our sacred struggle to create and maintain our own, free nation.”
We do not give in; we do not capitulate when our lives are at stake. Perhaps Life magazine summed it up best when they wrote, in a special edition for Israel’s 25th birthday: “It’s the same story each and every year; the Arabs want to destroy Israel, and Israel refuses to cooperate.”
Stubbornness, after all is said and done, is a double-edged sword. We just have to be sure that that sword is used against our enemies, and not against ourselves.