Quarantine Diaries: AIPAC, Israel and the Unity of Purim
Last week I attended the AIPAC conference in DC, an inspiring three-day gathering of pro-Israel conferences, lobbying, and general schmooze-fest. It is also a chance to reconnect with people I may not have seen in a while. The day after the conference there were murmurings online that people who were returning from AIPAC to Israel would need to self-quarantine for fourteen days upon their return. On Thursday, as the murmurings became policy, and dozens of new cases of coronavirus popped up in the NY metropolitan area, I booked a ticket for that night instead of waiting until my scheduled Saturday night flight, concerned that the Israeli government might cancel flights from the US as they had just done for a bunch of European countries. I was overjoyed to arrive home in Ramat Beit Shemesh Erev Shabbat, to be back in Israel and with my family, only to be confronted with the reality that I would not really be with my family. Self-quarantine means isolation in a separate room and bathroom, with no direct contact with the outside world and even with family members. Some families we know are not enforcing strict separation, relying on masks and gloves to get food or to use the bathroom. For us, we feel that we should strictly follow the official position of the Ministry of Health who set public policy. This is also reinforced by the fact that my wife regularly sees her parents in Jerusalem who, being elderly, would be in great danger of being exposed to the virus if I inadvertently transmitted it to her. Fortunately, we have an upstairs loft space so I can avoid being on the same floor as the rest of the family. The most contact I got was conversation through the doorway at 15 feet distance with Shifra and the kids remaining in the stairway. I ached to give them all hugs, especially since I had already been away a week and a half, but that will have to wait.
I cannot help but be confronted with the many ironies of the situation. In the US I attended a gathering of 18,000 people in support of Israel, only to be isolated from other Jews upon my return to Israel. This means no synagogue, no Purim celebrations, and no ‘siyum’ or group celebration of the completion yesterday of my first volume of Daf Yom, the study of the daily page of Talmud. The theme of Jewish unity is central to the holiday of Purim and the Story of Megilat Esther which we will be reading Monday night. When Haman comes to the King of Persia to ask for the destruction of the Jewish people, he tells him ‘there is a people who are fractured and spread out……whose laws are different from all other peoples and who do not obey the laws of the King.” Besides the classic anti-Semitic accusation of dual loyalties (a charge also leveled at the attendees of AIPAC last year by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar), the medieval commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra explains that Haman is telling the king that the Jews are bad people because they do not even get along with each other.
When Queen Esther is alerted by her uncle Mordechai of the King’s acquiescence to Haman’s plot, she calls on her uncle to ‘gather all the Jews and fast for me’ because if her plea to save the Jews is not accepted by the king it might mean the death of her and the Jewish people. Public fasting was always accompanied by communal prayer for a fundamental part of teshuva is examining how we interact with others and whether we are connected to other Jews. How good is my brotherly love if I am ticked off because the person behind me is praying too loud, or the person next to me is taking up too much space. All four mitzvot of Purim involve Jews coming together. We gather to read the Megila and to celebrate the Purim meal, however sending gifts to one’s neighbors and giving to the poor particularly accentuate cultivating our bond with other Jews on the holiday. Esther realized that the people must gather and unify, for that is how the nation would find its power, both spiritually and politically.
This reality is true today as well. The power of AIPAC is that it is a gathering of Jews from a very broad spectrum of religious and political views, from progressive Democrat to conservative Republican, from Reconstructionist and secular Zionist to nationalist religious and ultra-orthodox, all coming together in support of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. In Israel the political unity is a bit more challenging. Concurrently with AIPAC the third round of elections were taking place in Israel, once again with fractured results. The only way out seems to be if the two opposing parties, Likud and Blue & White form a unified government. Many people feel that their policies are not so different, and it is indeed partisanship which keeps them apart. This is an issue which has become more and more divisive in American politics as well. So, while close to 100,000 Israelis are in quarantine and are living separately, the need for political unity is even more pressing after three elections and a year of a non-functioning Knesset that cannot legislate new laws.
I consider myself fortunate that at least I have a balcony which gives me access to fresh air and to see the deep blue Israeli sky, and a view over the beautiful Judean hills; a view of which I never tire. I will have a lot of time to study Torah, write, and study with people on the phone (this is an open invitation to reach out and learn with me). I have sometimes felt that I am more centered and concentrate better in personal prayer where I can go at my own pace than when I got to minyan, daily services. However now after two days I already miss the cadence of the kaddish, the repetition of the amida, and the camaraderie of daily minyan and Torah classes that I regularly attend. Ultimately I feel that my self-quarantining is an act of unity, a caring for my fellow Jews that I not transmit the new Coronavirus if I am a carrier, and that I will come out of these two weeks with a deeper gratitude for simply being part of a community and being with others. Even without celebrating Purim with others to create even stronger bonds this year, I will try and focus my appreciation on each and every person and their unique qualities, for ultimately we are all part of one extended family.