Over the past week there’s been a feeling of relief here in Israel- a sense of the end of corona: a transition period as restrictions ease, the flattening of the curve and the confusing attempts to return to our everyday routines as families and as a country. Although there is still a long way to go before we return to “normal,” the current reality in Israel allows a little more space and time to reflect upon what we’ve experienced over the past two months.
This shabbat we finish reading the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus) which is the book that relates the most procedures and restrictions out of the five books of the Torah. Reading the book of Vayikra is somewhat reminiscent of the material that many of us are currently reading. I find myself occupied with how to reopen the full Mechina (pre-army) program, about the technicalities of housing BINA’s four service learning groups, the reopening of my daughter’s kindergarten and all the other activities that make up my professional and personal life. Government restrictions on gatherings, emergency regulations, permitted distance between beds are all mixed up in my head like a salad.
The number of laws and procedures in Vayikra makes it a very technical book compared to what we’ve been accustomed to reading in the early stories of our forefathers or the wonders of the exodus from Egypt. There are 27 chapters in the book of Vayikra which are schematically divided as follows: 7 chapters on the laws of offering sacrifices, 3 chapters on the dedication of the Mishkan (tabernacle), 5 chapters on impurity and purity (precise instructions for hand washing are no modern invention), a chapter on Yom Kippur, 6 chapters on holiness, 3 chapters on holidays and sacred times (how to conduct a Passover Seder via zoom, for example), an appendix and finally, a chapter on blessings and curses. I’d like to discuss this chapter on blessings and curses that appears just before the book ends.
Anyone who has held a leadership role of any kind is familiar with considerations about the right way to motivate people to partake or to avoid a given action. The question that always arises is: is it more appropriate to motivate with descriptions of a desired reality or is it, perhaps, more effective to warn and intimidate with descriptions of a difficult reality that can be expected if they do not follow the rule?.
“We will see the complete collapse of the healthcare system,” “The Israeli economy will never recover” – are clear messages of the harsh reality to be expected if we do not adhere to the restrictions, or in the words of the Book of Vayikras: “But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments” (26:14).
We’re prone to criticize the tendency to choose intimidation as a motivational tool, however difficult challenges require our leaders to navigate an entire nation through a complicated reality that may entail some sacrifice. History books recall eminent leaders who promised their people nothing but “blood, toil, tears and sweat” in the Churchillian style, and through this directness, promised to lead them to victory.
The paragraphs on blessings and curses in this week’s parasha devote 3 times more space to curses than to blessings. That is, the time that is devoted to emphasizing the terrible things that will happen to us if we do not obey the rules than the time allotted to describing an inspiring future, “ I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone; I will give the land respite from vicious beasts, and no sword shall cross your land” (26:6). God and Moses seem to favor the method of intimidation – perhaps they believe it’s more credible – human nature finds it difficult to imagine a utopian reality. After all, the Latin word utopia means both “a good place” and “a place that does not exist.”
This week I had the privilege of seeing BINA’s program directors meet this dilemma in a highly personal way. I heard the BINA Shnat Sherut (service learning year) director emphasize that the coronavirus crisis may enhance participants’ sense of meaningful service during this year that they’ve devoted to community service in Israeli society. I also saw the director of the Mechina (pre-army program) speaking with participants, balancing the need to clarify the health dangers involved in returning to activity, but at the same time, inspiring them that the situation will improve. He combined concepts such as masks, social distance and segregated areas on campus with the hope and belief that we will all, wherever we are, have “the kind of summer that has been here before. I said come summer – a strong summer.“