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Reesa Cohen Stone: The Mud and the Miracles

April 12,2021

From a distance everything looks like a miracle
but up close even a miracle doesn’t look like that.
Even someone who crossed the Red Sea when it split
saw only the sweating back
of the man in front of him
and the swaying of his big thighs...
—Yehuda Amichai

Look up?… waaaaay up
—The Friendly Giant

I would not be altogether truthful if I said that my Zionism, which I have devoutly lived by all my life, has not taken a hit these past pandemic months. 

Not since the hyperinflation of 1984-85 have I questioned my decision to spend my life in the HolyLand. 

Despite the amazing cooperation shown by most Israelis during the first lockdown last spring, and emerging from it in a relatively good position, Israel has not handled the challenges of the pandemic particularly well; a dysfunctional government whose members seem to change the rules on an hourly basis while anyway disregarding themmembers of communities who felt the rules did not apply to them; supermarkets who would not, or could not, enforce the regulations; voters who felt it was more important to unlawfully try to change a lawfully elected Knesset than to prevent the spread of disease; celebrants who believed that their celebrations were far more important than preventing the spread of disease; untold multitudes who imagined that they were much too cool/important/savvy/clean to become ill and/or spread disease; teachers and others service people who felt their 'right to their bodies' was far more important the other's right to health; conspiracy theorists who claimed over and over that Covid-19, if real at all, was not dangerous and people were dying of the vaccine and not the virus; and all those thousands who broke quarantine because, why not? 

The vaccination rollout in Israel has been wildly successful and, though there are still too many individuals who will not vaccinate for a variety of reasons, lockups, quarantines, and shuttered shops seem to be behind us. 

Three weeks ago, as we approached the holiday of Pesach, which commemorates the Children of Israel leaving slavery and entering Peoplehood, I began to wonder how I, personally, would be able to forgive all those who couldn't, or wouldn't, keep the rules, who behaved selfishly and ignorantly, who felt death trumped life, or at least that their own life trumped mine.  How would I, once again, become part of a People I could not forgive?

To be honest, I've been grappling with this problem for months. How would I forgive the student who refuses to wear a mask when she comes to ask me a question? Or the chemistry professor who intimated that I was a silly coward when I asked him to wear one in my office. How could I go back to the supermarket where the manager took off her mask to yell across the store, then laughingly told everyone around her that the two weeks 'vacation' we would all get if she were sick were on her. How was I going to look almost anyone in the eye?

The Pesach holiday turned out to be very lovely. Last year, we spent Pesach in lockdown, which had its good points, but was incredibly sad. This year however, thanks to the vaccinations, we managed to get all the kids together, and met with many members of our extended and growing family for a picnic in the park. I felt lighter, more relaxed, happier, than I had in a very long time. 

Maybe I could put the year behind me and forgive. 

Until I saw people without masks, until I read again about our dysfunctional government, until I learned that people had died because hospitals were overcrowded because people had not followed the regulations. 

This was not going to be easy. 

On the last day of Pesach, the anniversary of the Children of Israel crossing the Sea of Reeds to freedom, I read this midrash (story) about that crossing:

How did the Israelites rebel at the Sea of Reeds? Exactly when they went down into the sea bed, and found it full of mud, because it was still wet from the water. As they walked through the sea, all they could talk about was the mud. Reuven said to Shimon: "In Egypt, we had mud, and now here too in the sea we have mud. In Egypt, we had mud for bricks, and here too, we have an abundance of mud to make bricks." They rebelled at the sea, even though this was the parting of the Sea of Reeds! They didn't notice the water, instead they saw the mud. (Shmot Raba 24)

The Children of Israel were, literally, mired in their own distress. In the midst of the greatest miracle of all time – one that would be recorded and noted by all peoples – they were complaining about mud on their shoes. In the midst of their liberation, they could only see despair. They could not lift their eyes to see the miracles. 

Reading this story, something inside of me shifted. I realized that it was time to stop seeing only the mud I was walking in, and to look up. There are miracles to witness. 

When God told Avraham Avinu that He was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Avraham bargained Him down. If Avraham could find ten righteous residents, the cities would be saved. 

Accordingly, being from the same town, I will following Avraham’s example, and, in honor of the upcoming holiday of Yom HaAzmaut (Independence Day), instead of listing 73 wonderful things about Israel (as is custom), I will find ten miracles amidst the mud, and see if I can't save my Zionism. 


The mud: When the novel coronavirus (Sars-CoV-2), which causes Covid-19, first began its spread, nobody knew anything. There were no treatments, no medications, no therapies, no testing, and certainly no cures. Hospitals worldwide were overwhelmed. People were anxious and fearful, even terrified. The world prepared for hundreds of millions of deaths. 

The Miracle: Even before the disease began to spread, Israeli researchers swung into action, and did what they do best, thinking outside the box and finding solutions for handling the disease and its effects and aftermaths. Israel has developed new treatmentsmedicationstesting, even cures, and is now sharing research on the results of massive vaccination. Much of this research will be applicable to other viruses and conditions. Israel is once again leading the way to a safer and healthier world. 


The mud: Grocery shopping raises my blood pressure. The majority of the shoppers are unmasked, same goes for the staff; those who are masked take it off to shout across the store, yell into their phones (“Moshie!! which do you like better? Spiral pasta or bow ties?"). People crowd around the sweet potatoes and push their way to the front of the line to the butcher. If I stand two meters away from the next person at the checkout, inevitably someone jumps into the empty space. 

The Miracle: I have a choice of more than two dozen very large supermarkets in Beer Sheva. The supermarkets are all full of fresh, delicious, kosher food. There are no shortages of eggs or chickens or carrots. And the stores sell produce according to the Jewish calendar: pomegranates at Rosh HaShana time, hamentashen for Purim, and, for the last few weeks, aisles and aisles and aisles of products specially for Pesach. And during Pesach, the cereals and bow tie pasta are all put away or covered up. They cannot be legally sold. And most importantly, the Israeli Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream, which is made kosher for Passover, has special Pesach flavors such as Charoset and Matza Crunch. Next up are shelves and shelves of meats, beer, humus, olives, marshmallows, and charcoal for Yom HaAzmaut. All 100% kosher. In the supermarket nearest you. 


The mud: We've had four elections in two years. We have politicians who have served time in jail for a myriad of reasons. Far too many of the Members of Knesset are more interested in holding on to their seats than they are in the welfare of the state. It's disheartening. It's disillusioning. It's frustrating. And no amount of elections seems to fix the problem.

The Miracle: We have our own government - a Hebrew-speaking group of people who represent the nation of Israel. We've just marked Holocaust Remembrance Day, reminding ourselves what happens when we don't have a State and a government of our own. Despite all the mud-slinging, we're in a good place. Let's not forget, it was the Israeli government that made a deal for the Coronavirus vaccine before any other country.  


The mud: Israel has gone through at least three lockdowns (depending on how you count them). Many families have gone through multiple quarantines. Many businesses have been forced to close. School kids have lost a year of education. The economy is in shambles. 

The Miracle: While by no means universally true, the lockdowns and quarantines have often brought out the best in people. There have been many individuals and organizations that took it upon themselves to help out others, delivering food and medicines to those who couldn't get out, making sure neighbors and isolated friends and family were safe and healthy. The lockdowns have given people a chance to slow down, breathe, look around, and appreciate what they do have. There was even time to learn a new skill.  The land turned green. The air was cleaner. People began to appreciate this great Land again. 


The mud: The lockdowns were extraordinarily difficult on families. Grandparents were separated from grandchildren for months. Adult children could not help their elderly parents. People in nursing homes were confined and lonely. On a personal level, we had a new granddaughter born right as the pandemic was beginning. We didn't see her for almost four months. We missed most of her first year of life. We also had a wedding, to which we could not invite, well, anyone.  In other cases, people were locked up with abusers. It was a frightening and lonely time. 

The Miracle: The lockdowns caused Zoom to proliferate and has actually brought our families closer. Early on, with our adult kids living in three different cities and four different houses, and unable to see each other, our family began to zoom every Friday afternoon at tea time. It became a highlight of the day, with the kids themselves initiating it. Even when there is no lockdown, we continue zooming, seeing the kids and grandkids interact weekly, something they never did pre-pandemic. In addition, we've made contact with family members abroad through zoom; relatives that I have not seen or spoken to in years, I now see once a month. It's truly a joy. At the same time, older people were able to learn computer skills they had never needed, opening up a world to them that had been closed. It's now possible to Zoom so many lectures and virtual tours and concerts that were absolutely not accessible previously. 


The mud: Since the last election 13 months ago, mass demonstrations have been held near the residence of the Prime Minister. The slogan of the demonstrations has been 'GO',  a reference to the demonstrators desire to oust the Prime Minister (who had just been lawfully elected for the 743rd time, but hey). The demonstrations were massive, with people coming from all around the country to show their displeasure at the outcome of the vote. Unfortunately, many of the demonstrators were maskless. They were in close quarters. And hundreds, if not thousands, participated because it was the only place they could meet up with friends. Israel has been under a strict lockdown for the better part of this time, and all entertainment venues – movies, theatres, sporting events, restaurants, bars – have been closed. It was even illegal to meet in another person's house. The demonstrations were cynically used as an excuse for a massive party. Infection was rampant.

The Miracle: We live in a democracy, where the basic right to demonstrate – even against a sitting government – is sacrosanct. Going to a demonstration was one of the few reasons one was allowed to travel between towns.  We don't live in a communist dictatorship, or a fascist dictatorship, or a monarchy (aka dictatorship). They might be too often, but elections are held lawfully and properly, and anyone can, and does!! run for office. Considering the neighborhood in which we live, and the fact that the vast majority of citizens do not have a history of democracy back in their respective Old Countries, having a working democracy is miraculous. 


The mud: Just before Pesach, I heard a loud boom outside my window. I paid it no attention. However, about an hour later, there was a news report that a Grad missile had been fired at the city from Gaza, but because the trajectory showed that it would not land within city limits, no alarm went off. No damage was done, nobody was hurt by the missile. I had ignored the boom because there are booms all the time. That evening, my Israeli-born daughter told me 'that there are countries when windows don't rattle from airplanes breaking the sound barrier, where booms and alarms aren't normal. Did you know that?' 

The Miracle: It's true, we live in a war zone. My sons serve in the army. There are planes flying overhead. We see tanks and armored cars all the time on the roads. It's not fun. It's not romantic or exciting. There is absolutely nothing good about war.  But the situation is miraculous. After more than 2000 years, Jews don't have to run scared. We don't have to live at the mercy of some Duke or Archbishop or neighborhood bully. We have our own army, and our own air force, and our own navy. Rattling windows, booms, inconsolable losses, unending grief will have to be the price we pay for the daily miracle of being able to defend ourselves at last. 


The mud: Over the past year, there have been dozens of stories and pictures of a certain segment of Israeli society who seemingly refused to comply with the Ministry of Health regulations when it came to mass gatherings. They had weddings and funerals and prayer events with thousands of people. How could this possibly be ok? It wasn't ok. People got sick and people died. It was preventable. 

The Miracle: As soon as synagogues were shuttered, minyanim (prayer quorums) popped up in all sorts of unlikely places; playgrounds, street corners, islands in busy streets, peoples’ front yards. Because there were so many options, more people prayed daily than in 'normal' times. The law regarding outdoor prayers actually took Jewish law into consideration; gatherings were allowed for up to 19 people. Why the number 19? It seems arbitrary, but the reasoning was that as soon as there were 20 men, they could split into two minyanim.  In the bigger picture, more people are learning more Torah today than in all history. More charity is being given; more good deeds are being done than ever before. This ensures the continuity of the Nation of Israel. 


The mud: I have a strong accent when I speak Hebrew. I make grammar mistakes and I often grope for a word that I can't remember. Sometimes, this handicap makes me feel like I don't belong. Despite spending two thirds of my life here, sometimes, when I'm low, I can't shake the feeling that I'm still a stranger. 

The Miracle: My kids speak Hebrew without an accent. My grandkids too. In fact, more people speak Hebrew today than at any other time in history. Even if I don't fit in, I've ensured that my descendants will not have that problem. It's a small price for such an enormous miracle. 


The mud: Ben-Gurion International Airport has been closed to foreign nationals – with some exceptions – for the better part of a year. In January 2021, even those exceptions were cancelled. Non-Israelis were not allowed into the country. This decision has wreaked havoc on the tourist industry; families have been separated; weddings and other celebrations have been put on hold for the unforeseeable future. It's a mess. 

The Miracle: For the first time in its history, Israel closed its doors to Jews wishing to visit. People who have always felt that Israel was there when they needed it to be (to celebrate a Bar Mitzvah, to rejuvenate spiritually, to stock up on bizli and bamba, to spend some time on its amazing beaches, to visit friends and family, or even to get buried) have suddenly been made to realize that this might not always be the case, and that they need to get moving. More people are looking into aliyah than ever before, preparing to make that step. Jews around the world are beginning to realize that it's time to come home - before it's too late.

Israel is full of mud. There is no denying that. Our lives are often full of mud. We all make unwise, even selfish, choices.

And yet, despite our floundering in the mud, trying to scrape it off our shoes, it is time to look up – past the mud, past the sweat, past the fears – and see that the greatest miracle of our time – of ALL time – is taking place all around us.

Happy 73rd Birthday to my Beloved State of Israel. 

And Thanks for the Miracles.

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