The coronavirus crisis has served to remind me, among other things, of how important our outward behavior is to the overall witness of our faith.
Many Christians think that “witnessing” solely involves standing on streets corners handing out tracts or personally sharing the gospel with non-believers. But far more important is how people see us acting when we think no one’s paying attention.
Believe me, religious Jews make the same mistake.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews seek to entice or otherwise convince “secular” Jews to make teshuvah, to “return” to a righteous mode of living before God. They hope that prayers and examples of “righteous” living on their behalf will encourage their less pious brothers and sisters to return to the fold.
But amid the coronavirus crisis, ultra-Orthodox defiance in the face of government regulations meant to curb the spread of the disease has served not to entice, but rather to enrage secular Israeli Jews. And while this shameful behavior might indeed be that of a minority, it is being played on the media so often that average Israelis have come to associate it with the ultra-Orthodox community in general.
And if this perceived disregard for the wellbeing of others is what it means to follow God, to be “religious,” then your average Israeli wants nothing to do with it.
This, my friends, is what it means to be a poor witness.
And we are all guilty of it, because it starts at home.
I want nothing more than for my children to grow up dedicated to and strong in the faith that is so central to my life. I want them to put God first, to treat others as they would be treated, to seek peace and to offer forgiveness even where it’s not deserved.
But I am also painfully aware that more often than not, I don’t do those things, and they see me not do those things. I am often too “busy” to devote any personal time to God; I often snap at others, but most certainly will not tolerate them snapping at me; I am often quicker to criticize than to forgive.
And as often as I might tell them to do as I say, my children are far more likely to do as I do.
Israel’s rabbis seek to be a moral compass for the nation. Chief among their teachings is that of pikuach nefesh, that saving life comes before all. And yet, when the nation was confronted with a life-threatening pandemic, their initial reaction was dismissal and disobedience against the measures meant to save lives. And now at least a third of all confirmed coronavirus case in Israel are among ultra-Orthodox Jews, even though they make up less than 15 percent of the population.
Living in Israel, and with a wife who works in health care, my initial reaction, like that of many Israelis, was one of anger toward the Haredim. But I found myself forced to recognize that this is not a flaw unique to their community, but rather a human flaw.
How many times growing up in the Bible Belt of America did I see the same mistake made by both Evangelical Christians and the secular liberals opposed to them?
The saying “actions speak louder than words” is said to date back many centuries, though the Bible clearly addressed the issue already millennia before that. And still we haven’t learned the lesson.