An elderly man wearing a white skullcap walked alone across a large square in pouring rain. Not far from the entrance to the house of worship, he stopped, lifted his eyes to the heavens and prayed. This happened neither in Bnei Brak nor in Jerusalem, but rather in Vatican City, in Rome.
Pope Francis chose, in light of the circumstances, to invoke for the crowd of believers the most solemn prayer in the calendar of the Catholic Church: Urbi et Orbi (in Latin: For the City and the World), which in normal times is reserved only for Christmas, Easter and the day a new pope is elected. He did this by himself, in St. Peter’s Piazza, which is synonymous with the tens of thousands of worshippers crowding into it throughout the year. This time, however, in the days of the coronavirus and social distancing, the pope stood alone, prayed and blessed.
The contrast between the vast space planned by Roman Baroque artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini and the pope’s solitary worship was stunning. In the 17th century, Bernini designed an elliptical plaza, bounded by two rows of huge columns, embracing the masses of worshippers like two giant arms. This time those limbs enfolded an empty piazza, in which there was only one man with a prayer in his heart. The open doors of St. Peter’s Basilica, which also was empty, further emphasized that the worshippers were absent presences in the ceremony that was both grandiose and intimate.
Bearing in mind these scenes, which moved a billion Catholics around the world, it is worth considering the miserable debate in Israel now regarding the synagogues, the Talmud Torahs and the other buildings in which in ordinary times study of the Gemara and communal prayer take place.
The tragedy that is now raging in Bnei Brak is not only the fruit of failed leadership by irresponsible rabbis, to whom the state has been accustomed to delegating – privatizing – its authority. Indeed, from the very first moment, the Jewish state of course should have understood the religious, spiritual and hence medical power of prayer, and not have created a conflict between the fierce desire to pray and the absolute need to maintain the public’s health.
Long before Pope Francis and long before Jesus in Gethsemane, individual prayer has been a fundamental element of Judaism. Like the Patriarch Abraham for Sodom, like Jacob before meeting Esau, like Moses when he saw the land he would not enter, Scripture is laden with moving examples of the power of solitary prayer. A picture of the chief rabbis going alone to pray at the Western Wall, without a prayer quorum, could have reminded us of the obvious: It is possible and worthy to pray alone.
However, in Israel they preferred to engage in a public, political quarrel over the issue, instead of approaching it in a wise fashion, aware of its sensitivity. The crude, stupid way the decision-makers in Israel have related to the question of prayer should not, of course, come as a surprise to anyone, even if there are religiously observant ministers in the cabinet.
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Indeed, as the days go by, the way the authorities are dealing with the coronavirus crisis is looking amateurish and negligent at the very least. The ministers have debated at length about the size of the prayer quorum, visits to the ritual bath and how far from home one is allowed to take a walk, but this bunch, which is in charge of making the decisions in the worst health crisis in the history of Israel, did not succeed in distinguishing between what is most important and what is trivial, and did not say, weeks ago and clearly: Prayer yes, public prayer no.
At a time when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz are busy sewing up the “emergency government,” which will be the most bloated and superfluous in the history of the state, who even remembers that precisely the very smallest can be the most powerful.