Early in the pandemic, we said and did a lot of things that made little sense. Recommendations changed almost daily. We gravely took specific precautions that turned out to be useless, like hanging plexiglass shields and buying stores out of toilet paper. And we talked a lot about “silver linings,” like how glad we were to take a break from working in offices or wearing dress clothes. Twenty-one months on, the recommendations still change faster than we can keep up with, precautions we thought we finally had figured out now turn out again to be minimally effective, and the only silver lining I see is in my hair.
According to my friend and teacher, Rabbi Danny Schiff, one of the nonsensical things a lot of involved Jews did then was to compare the COVID19 pandemic to one of the plagues visited upon Egypt. In a Facebook post dated April 1, 2020, yet not intended as a joke, Rabbi Schiff implored his audience not to compare our present situation to the “Eleventh Plague” or to mention it at seder. “This is the wrong parallel,” he wrote. “Let’s remember: the Ten Plagues were delivered by God deliberately as a punishment for Pharoah’s obstinacy. Does anybody seriously believe that God deliberately delivered this current pandemic as a punishment? I don’t. No thoughtful Jewish theology would support such an idea.”
He went on to suggest that the better comparison would be to the plague that killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students, which the rabbis in tractate Yevamot compared to diphtheria, a natural, infectious plague that caused loss and calamity which we still mourn in our own time during the period of the Omer.
Unfortunately, the parallel to the plague in Rabbi Akiva’s time runs deeper than the analogy between diphtheria and COVID. In April 2020 we were only beginning to see the rifts that have opened in our society, and indeed in most countries, around every aspect of the pandemic: masks, lockdowns, vaccinations, treatments, and even whether the virus itself exists at all. These rifts mirror fundamental, cultural-political rifts that predate the pandemic and that appear, unfortunately, to be about the only thing that is wholly immune to COVID19.
Yevamot explains the plague as follows: “They said by way of example that Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students in an area of land that stretched from Gevat to Antipatris in Judea, and they all died in one period of time, because they did not treat each other with respect.” In other words, the plague was the result of baseless hatred between individuals.
SARS CoV-2 is not a Divine punishment for baseless hatred. But we know that the virus is not the only plague circulating in 2021. Secondary pandemics, and pre-existing ones, have been running in parallel to the coronavirus pandemic: drug overdoses and addiction: loneliness and other serious mental health crises; disruptions in our education system, our judicial system, and the other parts of our healthcare system; racial, gender, and economic inequality exacerbated by both the disease burden of the virus and its societal impacts. And woven through all of these is the plague of political tribalism, which in most cases stakes a person to a fixed position on each of these other pandemics, a position from which they are prone to view anyone who disagrees with them as not only wrong, but evil. And regarding these plagues, we are not blameless.
These plagues invite a new, different comparison to the plagues of Egypt. I’m not speaking of the theology of God punishing the Egyptian enslavers, but the symbolism of what happened to Egyptian society during the plagues, and how similar it is to what ails us now.
The plagues struck Egypt in the ways that hurt Egyptian society most, attacking the god-figures and the sustaining forces in Egyptian life – the animals, the crops, the Nile, and ultimately the first-born children on up to Pharaoh’s own son, the incumbent godhead of all Egypt. They turned Egyptian society upside down, in one case literally turning day to night. And here, in pandemic-era America, our gregarious society known for its abundance, its never-ending activity, and its show-must-go-on spectacles has become a place of empty streets, scarcity, cancellations and staffing shortages. We barely recognize ourselves.
In the case of the river, water, the sustaining force of all life, in Egypt and everywhere on the planet, turned to blood. In modern English, when we say there’s “blood in the water,” we mean it as a metaphor for “the sharks are circling.” A fitting description of our time. It doesn’t matter which side of the political divide you fall on; there are sharks circling, both ones that are angling to eat you, and ones you are hoping will eat the people you hate.
This is not water you can drink: “The fish in the Nile died. The Nile stank so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile; and there was blood throughout the land of Egypt.” (Shmot 7:21)
In my last post I lamented how much I have begun to feel like the Burning Bush, perpetually on fire, and wondering how much longer I can burn, how much longer I can push through the pandemic life, before finally being charred beyond recognition. I need water to drink to refresh me, to keep me from being consumed.
Like everyone else in America, I fell into the pattern of believing that water with blood in it was just fine to drink, that righteous, or self-righteous anger, snark, vitriol, and acid wit was going to buoy me up. I bought into the fiction that not only was the pandemic a punishment, but it was a punishment that someone else deserved, that someone else was causing. I got angry, very angry, at people who wouldn’t mask, wouldn’t stay home despite Samuel L. Jackson reading them a vulgar bedtime story that instructed them to do so, wouldn’t get vaccinated, or insisted on telling me that I didn’t know anything about medicine. It made things worse.
Drinking this “bloody water” turns everything upside down. The hatred is so thorough that people turn themselves inside out in their criticism of the other side, espousing viewpoints they can’t possibly agree with:
- People who once called the end-of-life provisions in the Affordable Care Act “death panels” and protested to keep Terry Schiavo on life support rallied behind a lieutenant governor who suggested it would be okay to sacrifice some grandparents’ lives to get the economy going again.
- People who marched in the streets to remove the stigma and victim-blaming around HIV, drug addiction and mental illness broadcast their schadenfreude whenever someone prominent gets COVID after mocking the disease, publicly refusing vaccination, or touting disproven treatments.
- People who steadfastly serve in the US military, support our troops, and welcome strict security measures at our borders, in the airports, and on our city streets to guard against terrorism and crime cry that the government is infringing on their freedom when it asks for individuals to wear masks, get vaccinated, or limit activity to protect thousands of vulnerable lives.
- People who support universal, single-payor healthcare issue calls on social media for hospitals to refuse care to unvaccinated individuals with COVID19.
- People who support reducing government regulation on just about everything because “regulation stifles innovation and slows down progress” won’t use highly effective, efficiently developed vaccines because they feel they were developed too fast without enough oversight and they don’t trust what’s in them – the same argument their opponents have made for years about chemicals that leach into the environment due to lack of regulation of their development or use.
- People who support equity in education and are sensitive to issues of racial and economic inequalities in school resources supported sudden, prolonged closure of schools and a move to digital platforms while most disadvantaged students had no reliable way to access those platforms.
- People who deny the existence of systemic racism and keep Confederate memorabilia are suddenly very concerned about the Tuskegee experiment and its relevance to vaccines.
People advocate for actions they normally despise, use language they would normally despise, champion ideas they normally ridicule and undermine ideals they normally cherish for the sake of winning this debate, as if it can be won. The water gets bloodier, and the whole thing stinks like dead fish.
I’ve engaged in more than my share of this behavior myself, despite knowing better and even trying to write myself a different script in some of my previous posts. It keeps happening, a plague no less contagious, no less persistent, than the pandemic virus itself. Worse, it keeps mutating; every new issue becomes a new battleground, every point of policy a new cause for fighting.
So no, the SARS CoV-2 virus is not a Divine weapon of retribution. But the other societal illnesses swirling around it are undoubtedly due to our inability to treat each other with respect, and we are trapped in a darkness where a person cannot recognize their fellow from mere inches away. There is most certainly blood in the water.
More telling still is the fact that the plague of the bloody Nile is never officially declared over. Moshe does not plunge his staff back into the blood and turn it back to water, nor does the text clearly state that it reverted on its own. We learn only that after seven days of the first plague, the plague of frogs begins. The river can sustain life again – but the kind of life that usually lives in a foul swamp. Pittsburgh’s polluted rivers sustain life – but they are the type of mutant, heavy-metal-laden carp that don’t belong on the dinner table. The hateful speech will not go away on its own, nor can it be forcibly contained. Only a slow, steady trickle of clean, fresh water, a stream of goodwill and compassion, brought forth from the ground by a sustained effort, can dilute away that blood and filth.
Tradition holds that the groundwater in Egypt was spared the plague of blood. In Shmot 7:24 we learn that, “all the Egyptians had to dig round about the Nile for drinking water, because they could not drink the water of the Nile.” We need to dig deeper to find some clean, untainted water, and pour it out liberally for those around us.