(In my recent article post, ‘It was a pleasant evening down by the puddle,’ which was about Natania and Gil’s wedding, I made it clear that we were starting in media res, the middle of things, and that we would soon get back to the beginning when we first encountered COVID-19. Here we go.)
Whether I heard it, or saw it, or read it somewhere, I don’t remember, but it was Alfred Hitchcock doing the explaining. He was off-and-running on his favorite topic, or at least the one he was most qualified to discuss: suspense in the movies, as in how to create it. We know it will all turn out all right in the end – after all it’s a Hollywood movie – but still we’re sitting on the edge of our seats, biting our nails. A possible scenario: two people are sitting at a table, eating breakfast, lunch, or dinner (it doesn’t matter which). Unbeknownst to them, there’s a bomb planted nearby, set to go off in half an hour. We the audience have been let in on the secret; the question is whether our couple will be warned in time. To make matters more compelling, there are other people aware of the danger who are trying frantically to warn our couple. But there’s a problem; there has to be a problem, or it wouldn’t be interesting. There’s something wrong with the phone, or the line is busy; or the would-be rescuers are themselves locked in a room and themselves need to escape; any dilemma will do. Somehow, they will find a way to get the message out, foiling the plot, and our heroes will be saved in the nick of time.
There’s one ending you’ll NEVER see – at least in a Hollywood movie. The message does finally get through, There’s a bomb under the table; it’s set to go off in five minutes. But what happens? The guy who gets the message says, Don’t be ridiculous, there’s no bomb here, and hangs up. And five minutes later, he and his companion get blown to smithereens. That only happens in real life; no one would pay a nickel to see that scenario in a movie.
You think I’m wrong? It doesn’t happen? People get messages that they’re in danger, and they ignore the message and the messenger. What planet are you living on? Let’s take an example from today’s world, one that is of some interest to all of us.
Start with Barbara’s (second) cousin Michael. He’s living in Israel now, but there was a time when he was working in China, and he still has buddies in that part of the world. And they were letting him know back in January, Guess what’s coming your way!
I can’t imagine that Michael’s friends were divulging any State secrets (although the Chinese government was reticent to disclose the nature and scope of the problem). The point being, that if Michael knew, lots of government-types in capitals all over the world must also have been clued in that there was a monster out-of-control pandemic coming their way.
There’s no point being a bigshot and saying that I would have done the right thing. Except for Southeast Asia, most countries have little experience with pandemics like COVID-19, so it’s sort of like telling someone that the loud ruckus outside their front door is actually a dinosaur and being surprised when your warning is not taken seriously. No surprise, presidents, prime ministers, governors, mayors of all types and persuasions dropped the ball. Some of them scrambled to pick up said ball once they realized what it was, and some of them are still watching while the ball keeps bouncing or pretending that there’s no ball or that the ball will stop bouncing by itself. Even so, the question would be, what do you do with the ball once you’ve picked it up – assuming that you ever do? What are the rules of the game? Whom do you ask about those rules? And how do you explain what’s going on to the multitudes – especially when the stakes are so high? When it matters so much whether you win or lose.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The only thing as contagious as a Corona virus is stupidity, especially when it’s allowed to run amok among the population. And that’s what seems mostly to have happened.
Aren’t you glad I insisted we go? Barbara and I have this little joke. She will insist we do something or go somewhere, and she will persist until agree. Once I’m finally enjoying myself, I will pretend that it was my idea all along. (That Barbara has let me live this long is some sort of miracle.)
It was February, and, as some of you remember, there we were on safari on the Serengeti. Can you imagine any place more remote, more removed from a global pandemic? Our biggest worry was the lions roaring outside our tent; our biggest concern was finding a safe place to pee when we were far away from the appropriate facilities. Yes, we were interviewed by medical personnel at the various airports in Africa (“Have you been to China recently?”) and had our temperature checked, but the virus seemed so far away. Nothing to be worried about. Certainly not in Israel; no one did any checking at Ben-Gurion Airport when we returned. What could possibly go wrong? (My favorite question.)
What was our main concern when we got back? Getting ready for Purim. We always have the same friends over for the big meal Purim afternoon. And they dutifully showed up, the way hundreds of thousands of Israelis did wherever they were going, giving more thought to the day’s doings than the state of their health. And then it came crashing down on all of us. What could possibly go wrong?
It was as if someone (actually, the government) had pulled the plug just when it was getting interesting. Purim was Tuesday, and the following Sunday, we were scheduled to meet up with June and Jeff at a Japanese restaurant in Cinema City, the enormous multi-plex with stores galore. (Barbara and I had been there before. Good food with lots of vegan options for June.)
Should we be doing this? Maybe we should cancel? No worries; the decision not to be doing this would be made for us. The mighty Netanyahu was in charge, or so he said. Lots of directives from the Health Ministry, some of them making sense, some of them not, some of them contradicting an announcement from the day before.
We, of course, were targeted: You’re old; stay home. We are in better shape than many of our friends who are younger, but that’s another story. Like most of Israel, we took the matter to heart.
Don’t go more than 100 meters from your house – unless you’re going shopping (only stores deemed ‘essential’ were allowed to remain open) or walking a dog. We had this image of people renting out their pets so someone else could ‘walk’ them. I had a mental cartoon of some poor dog, exhausted from being ‘walked’ morning to night, begging to be allowed to take a nap. Shopping? Anyone can schlepp along a shopping cart or carry a bag or two and claim to be heading towards the supermarket in the mall.
At first, the strategy seemed to be working – more or less. As is well-known, Israelis are superb at handling emergencies; it’s the normal everyday interactions that are across-the-board difficult. Plus, if there is nothing to do and no place to go – schools and day-care centers are closed, offices are closed, malls are closed, synagogues are closed, theaters are closed, museums are closed, parks are closed, public transportation is limited, restaurants are doing take-out or deliveries only – it’s hard to mess up, even for the most obdurate Israeli determined to ignore the rules, which were clearly meant for everybody else, just not him.
Barbara and I spent quality time in the apartment we share with our two cats. We took turns napping on the couch in the living room; just to break the monotony, we stared out the windows facing the streets in the hopes of seeing an occasional stroller, jogger, or dog-walker. Neither of us got that much done. Most of what we needed to survive – even wine – could be ordered on-line. On rare occasions, we left the safety of our building and ventured forth to one of the small grocery stores in our town. No visitors were allowed in; no one invited us out. Zoom, a previously obscure application, quickly joined other social media and the telephone as our main portals to the outside world.
Despite the admonitions, stay inside, stay inside, we realized pretty quickly that we needed to get some exercise, more than running up and down the stairs. Let’s see, if we go 100 meters in one direction and 100 meters back, that’s 200 meters. How about if we walk together and first use your 100 meters; then we’ll use my 100 meters. And then we’ll retrace our steps, using my 100 meters and then your 100 meters, which is one time around a regular 400 meters running track.
Despite our best efforts to amuse ourselves, life, as it was for most of our friends, became a seemingly endless same-old-same-old. Usually, there’s Shabbat to break up the monotony. But when it’s all the same: you’re davening in your slippers in the living room instead of a minyan at shul; it’s you and wifey sitting opposite each other, just like any other day, with no one else to share profundities with, there’s something lacking.
I was thinking about this topic, especially about Shabbat, when I came upon an article that got me thinking. Musar Avicha was still running weekly articles by various members of the congregation, and I prepared the following based on what I had read:
You’re now stranded on an uninhabited island – all alone. The ship you were on sank, and you were fortunate enough to find something to float on until you reached the island. Does this sound like a Tom Hanks movie or a bad dream? Actually, it’s the basis for still another fascinating debate in the Gemara (Shabbat 69a, and if you’re doing Daf Yomi, you whizzed by it a little while ago). What happens if “while wandering on a journey or in the desert,” you lose track of time. You have no idea what day of the week it is.
What a topic for a halachic dispute! Rav Huna suggested that whatever day you’re on, start counting from then and make the seventh day Shabbat. Hiyya bar Rav disagreed. Why wait? Make that first day Shabbat. Just to be clear, the halacha is ‘like’ Rav Huna.
Of course, that can’t be the end of the discussion. Since you’ll never know when the ‘real’ Shabbat is (and you have a six out of seven chance of guessing wrong), how do you behave on each of the seven days? Rava had an idea. Do the minimum amount of melachah you need to survive on each day of the week, including the one you think is Shabbat.
I’m sure that at this point, you’re asking the same question as the Gemara. If you make every day exactly the same, how is your putative Shabbat any different from the other six days? In the Gemara’s terse wording, “And that day, how is it recognized?” And the answer? “Through Kiddush and Havdalah.” Oh.
“And that day, how is it recognized?” What about us today, those of us who have spent most of the last month or two pretty much indoors, isn’t that what we’re feeling? Every day, including Shabbat, seems the same. We’re basically marking time, waiting for ‘life’ to resume. Yes, we know which day is which; we know when Shabbat starts and when it is over. (We get a message every week telling us to the minute.) But there’s something missing: that ‘old Shabbat feeling.’
Our lives are predicated on giving our all – whatever that ‘all’ might be – for six days, and then switching gears and giving a different kind of ‘all’ for the seventh. That ‘all’ certainly includes Kiddush and Havdalah, but normally there’s so much more to it than that. Just as during the week, there are places to go, people to see, tasks to perform, the same is true on Shabbat – although it’s different people, places, and things to do. These people, the ones we see every Shabbat, are special to us; the places we go, whether it’s to our beloved synagogue or to be with friends for a leisurely meal at a Shabbat table, the activities we endow with a special sense of kedusha, all of these have an intrinsic meaning.
But if there are no places we may go, no people (except for our immediate family) whose company we may enjoy, and only the basic tasks to perform – and if that’s true whether it’s a weekday or Shabbat – then every day is diminished by its sameness. I think all of us to some degree realize what is missing. Our task these days is to appreciate what we’ve lost and, in the weeks, months, and years ahead when our restrictions are lifted, when ‘life resumes,’ to give full value to every Shabbat – and the mundane days in between.
(My thoughts are based on an article by Gabriel Greenberg entitled “How Will We Recognize Shabbat?” in Lehrhaus, printed on-line on May 6, 2020. Thank you to Nachum Stone for his encouragement and assistance in preparing this article.)
This is probably as good a place as any to take a break. I will pick up where I left off in the next installment.