Koleinu A Corona Message from the Holy Land

By Rabbi Arthur Green
rabbi art green

I am an American Jew, living out this Corona season in holy Jerusalem. Caught here in the midst of a visit by the cancellation of my flight home, I get to view this universal disaster from the place that Jews, Christians, and Muslims once agreed was the very center of the world.

We are all watching pictures of the world’s great cities with empty streets and public places. We listen to daily news broadcasts as one after another of them declares a lockdown and fines those who violate it. But nowhere more than in Jerusalem do those empty streets call forth the opening verse of the Bible’s ancient Book of Lamentations: “How doth the city sit solitary!”

Jerusalem bears both the glory and the burden of being a symbol as well as a real city. The divisions within this city are deep: Jews and Arabs, religious (of many stripes) and secular, eastern and western, and so forth. All of these seem very real and contemporary. But the psalmist’s cry echoes through them: “Rebuilt Jerusalem will be like a city joined together.”

Is this the moment that will join us all together? What will it take to make us hear this event as Israel’s ancient prophets would have? The plague strikes us all down equally, no matter our tribe or which banner we are flying. Bedouin elders lie in the hospital next to Hasidic rabbis. That in itself should tell us how pitifully small-minded are the divisions between us. So too, all those things that divide humans from one another, all over the world.

Perhaps the divine voice those prophets once heard—or the cry of earth itself, if you prefer—now speaks to us out of the scientist’s laboratory. “O foolish humans, you who are about to destroy your earthly habitation! How many times have I warned you, calling out to you through the drying up of lakes, the rising of oceans, through the voice of one climate study after another! How late it is getting to change your ways!” Perhaps this blunt instrument of a terrible plague will make us listen.

We Jews are busy preparing for Passover, commemorating that awful night when a plague spread through ancient Egypt and killed the first-born of every household. This time it seems to be going for the matriarchs and patriarchs of each household instead. “I have yet one more plague,” the divine voice says there, in order to get Pharaoh to listen. Are we, collectively, that Pharaoh? Nothing else has worked to make us change our behavior. On the night of that ancient plague, the Israelites were told: “Do not go forth from your houses until morning. Let not the destroyer come into your homes.”

We are huddled, locked in our houses. But are we listening?

Rabbi Arthur Green is Rector of the Hebrew College Rabbinical School in Newton MA.

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