Chief Rabbi of Beijing: Things are getting back to normal

Rabbi Shimon Freundlich: "People realize now that humans aren't omnipotent, that there's a higher Power."

Shimon Cohen ,

Chinese subway train
Chinese subway train

Arutz Sheva interviewed Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, Chief Rabbi of Beijing, on the current situation in the city as China starts to ease up on its regulations, opening factories and getting people back to work.

“The factories are back in operation and exporting their products, and other countries are already receiving goods from China,” he says. “Things are getting back to normal, although there are still Chinese in quarantine – those who have recently returned from abroad.”

Rabbi Freundlich stresses that the Chinese government is only able to gradually ease back on the regulations after two months of shutdown due to the strict adherence of the population to the guidelines. “People obeyed the guidelines. We only left the house once a day or once every two days, and only for things that we really needed. I can tell you that out of the 13 Chabad Houses, not one of them was directly impacted by the virus. Not only that, but we didn’t even know anyone who knew people who had contracted the virus, because we did exactly what the government and the doctors said, and shut down all the places where large numbers of people congregate. That’s what really made a difference here.

“People are still wearing masks, of course,” he added, “but we can take walks in the park and the shops are open. Outside of the big cities, some of the schools are opening already,” he noted.

We asked Rabbi Freundlich if the warmer spring weather is partially responsible for the improved situation. “Well, to an extent, the virus is like a food item that can be preserved in the refrigerator but spoils if left out. When a virus is in cooler surroundings, it finds it easier to take hold, and when it’s warmer, it’s harder for it to survive outside a human host. Similarly, if someone coughs or sneezes when the weather’s cold, the virus can remain suspended in the air for up to sixty seconds. When it’s warmer, it falls to the ground much more quickly. But that doesn’t mean that the danger’s over,” he warns. “It’s still around, and we still have to be careful.”

We asked Rabbi Freundlich what lessons we could derive from the crisis the entire world finds itself in, and he doesn’t hesitate in his reply. “It’s all about unity,” he says. “There have only been a few times in the history of the world that we saw a sense of unity, of us all being together in this, like people are feeling now. There was Matan Torah, the time of the giving of the Torah, when all the Jewish people were ‘ke’ish echad u’vlev echad – as one person, with one heart.’ A thousand years later, at the time of the Purim miracle, the Jewish people once again united when Haman wanted to kill every single Jew. And now we’re in a situation in which people are really internalizing that humans are limited in their capabilities, and that we have to recognize that there’s a greater Power than us.”

He adds that, “The Lubavitcher Rebbe said that the first quarantine in history was when G-d told Noah to ‘go into the ark.’ The Hebrew word for ‘ark’ is ‘teivah’ which also translates as ‘word.’ The Baal Shem Tov explains that we can also understand this as meaning, ‘go into the word,’ that is, get into your prayers, your Torah learning – and then you’ll see good things happening.

“And then, after the flood, G-d told Noah, ‘Leave the ark,’ meaning that we should take the Torah we learned and use it to build a whole new world. In my Chabad House there are Jews from all over. Some of them are more religious, some less. Often people don’t want to have anything to do with others who don’t share their views, but now it’s different. Everyone’s stuck in his own ‘teivah’ and it’s an opportunity to reach out, to pick up the phone and call a neighbor, to express caring and concern. If we do that, then when we are finally able to leave our own ‘Noah’s ark,’ we’ll have built a new and better world, because there’s no more powerful weapon against hatred and evil than the unity of the Jewish People.”

We asked Rabbi Freundlich if he thinks that the Chinese themselves have a greater feeling of solidarity due to the events of the past few months. “Definitely. I’ve been living here for 19 years, and I’ve seen a huge difference in the last two months. Even though China is a Communist state and they’re atheists, the Chinese have seen that unity is so important. They’ve realized that they need to be there for each other, and they are doing so in exemplary ways, going out of their way to help people they don’t even know.”

Rabbi Freundlich notes that on Wednesday, there will be a global prayer linking Jews all over the world, and says, “There is nothing greater than ahavat Yisrael, love of one’s fellow Jew. This is what brought us national redemption in the past and it will bring it again in the future.”