Rabbi Kenneth Brander
Rabbi Kenneth BranderRebecca Kowalsky

These days, as we take our first steps back into the streets of our cities, educational institutions and workplaces, many of us are choosing to go directly to the hair salon closest to our home. However, many are still with bearded faces and unruly hair – not because of the inability to get an appointment, but because although we are recovering from the Corona epidemic, we are also in the period of mourning for those killed in the well- known epidemic in the history of the Jewish people - the plague that killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva's students, 12,000 pairs, during the period between Passover and Lag B'omer (or through Shavuot, depending upon one's reading of the text).

With the death toll from the Corona virus in Israel hovering at around 255 people, a number which is tragic and immense, it is almost impossible to imagine the loss of 24,000 that was suffered 2000 years ago.

The students who died were defined as leaders of the Jewish people; rabbinic personalities who left the study halls in order to fight the Romans in Bar Kochba’s army, parents to young children, the future generation of the Jewish people. In a span of mere weeks, an epidemic – perhaps not unlike what we are experiencing today – wiped out this community of scholars.

Human nature leads us to ask the question: why? The Talmud explains that the reason the plague killed so many people was because the students "did not treat one another with respect." Whether in fact the reason mentioned in the Talmud is metaphysical and not historically focused, as explained by Rav Shreria Gaon, the reality of a severe epidemic is once again threatening us, and it appears as though our collective experience of the past two months has taught us an important lesson in mutual respect.

Unfortunately, in Israeli society we often encounter situations where we do not respect each other enough. There are many reasons for this - we were born and raised in different places, come from different backgrounds and have different customs, believe in and sanctify different things. The combination of these factors makes us less familiar with each other. From that point it is a short line to feelings of prejudice, stereotype, remoteness and fear.

We have seen an unfortunate example of this in recent weeks, with regard to the harsh attitudes and statements made by some of the media and on social networks against the ultra-Orthodox population, regarding the spread of Covid-19 in that sector. But it is precisely these instances that need to be a reminder and a warning sign that we can also act differently - we can learn from one another, agree to disagree agreeably, respect and not force our ways on each other, maintain a discourse in which we find the unifying angle and not the divisive path. This is true for both the religious and the general public, for Jews and non-Jews alike - respect is not reserved for one sector or another and we can - no, we must - live with respect for each other.

I would never claim to identify a theological or faith-based reason why the Corona virus has arrived in the world. It is inappropriate to try to spiritually interpret why it is here, and those who try to do so by placing the blame on the specific religious conduct or inactivity of one population or another actually widen the chasm among our people. They deepen the rifts that we try so hard to bridge. Is there less respectful behavior than this?

I hope that we will be able to take positive lessons from this pandemic, as we did in the wake of the one that wiped out Rabbi Akiva's students, one that we have remembered and marked for over 2000 years. I hope that our takeaway will be to concentrate on what is really important in life, and that we will use the new perspective given to us in our lives with one another in order to try to feel and act with more respect and kindness.

During this time, we have seen respect for our elderly parents – who are more than remnants of the past but who also help shape our future and whose forced isolation has demonstrated to us in full force how important they are to us. We have learned respect for our children and our families with whom we have shared this intense experience over the past two months. We have new respect for our kindergarten teachers, educators and academic staff, as we stepped into their shoes and now appreciate with greater intensity the Herculean tasks they tackle each day. We must show our high admiration for the kindness and personal sacrifice of the medical teams, security forces and individuals who mobilized on behalf of the greater good.

And I hope that we will remember the tragedies of the present and the past in order to celebrate that which unites us, which is so much greater than that which divides us. Together we will find the good even in the bad and the moments of grace which will enable us to build a kinder and stronger world for ourselves and our children.

Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 27 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world.