By Vera Schwarcz
Hundreds of Israelis gathered at the Western Wall on Sunday evening after a prominent rabbi in Israel called for a mass prayer for those infected by the coronavirus.
“The job of the Jewish people is to pray for the good of the entire world,” Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Safed, said in a statement announcing the Western Wall prayer issued on Feb. 13. The statement called to “pray for the people of China who are in great distress.”
Vera Schwarcz, a professor of Asian Studies, was at the prayer meeting. She sent this report.
Sunday, Feb. 16: I just got back from the Kotel in a downpour. For the hour there, the rains held off. A few hundred people (thousands had been expected but inclement weather changed all that) gathered to pray for a special occasion. A banner announced in Hebrew: The Jewish people (Am Israel) prays for China. Chinese characters proclaimed a longer message: “Jews cry out and pray for peace in China and for healing and relief from the malady.”
Tourists and natives, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, children and the aged together shouted: “Ana Hashem hoshia na, Ana Hashem hatzlicha na” — God, please save, God please grant success.”
Here, I met two of the young women from Kaifeng (the city of the ancient Chinese Jews) whom I mentored toward conversion three years ago. We prayed. We spoke about their parents back home. Each was relieved that all is well, though food shopping is daunting, best done online. We spoke about how Chinese New Year was shadowed by the disease, the quarantine and governmental lies about the extent of infections.
We spoke about the huge economic burden that China and other countries are facing in the wake of the coronavirus. Israel has been hard hit. All tours from China cancelled. They bring hundreds of thousands of tourists to Jerusalem each year. A diamond center built just for Chinese shoppers (with staff that speaks the language) now makes do with a trickle of visitors from France, Italy and Slovakia.
Was this prayer for a better business climate? Not at all. Genuine compassion for those suffering on the other side of the globe was manifest. Reporters were out in force recording Jews praying for an afflicted nation, which needs medical and spiritual healing alike. China aches from far more than the coronavirus and its enforced isolation. Human rights abuses, official disinformation, lack of freedom of speech and thought are heavy burdens. They were not named explicitly on the poster calling us to prayer. No need. Each of us knew that the physical plagues — as in the Book of Exodus — bring spiritual sorrows as well.
As survivors of slavery, we Jews are commanded by the Torah to show compassion for the oppressed. Today, in Yerushalayim, we bore witness to the mitzvah of kavod ha briyot — honoring all God’s creations. Chinese and Jews have much in common culturally and historically.
In recent years, the relationship between China and Israel has grown much stronger. So when one people hurts, we all feel it and prayer is one concrete response.
In the late Mao era, the only way to travel to China was by expressing sympathy for the regime. Those days are over. Soul friendship matters more now. Before the downpour started, I glimpsed a golden hue amid the clouds over the Kotel. Light in the midst of darkness — that is our best hope in these uncertain times.
Vera Schwarcz is emerita professor of Asian Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.