Like A Good Seder, Social Distancing Teaches Empathy

On his April 2 Fox News show, Tucker Carlson again speculated whether it would have been preferable if America had, as a country, limited social distancing guidelines to the elderly and those most at risk from COVID-19, while “everyone else” would have continued to work and keep the economy running. As unemployment claims skyrocket and stock market indices plummet, his voice is not alone.

In contrast, NYC City Councilmember Ritchie Torres recently mused that the entire point of social distancing is that there is no “everyone else.” In his own words, social distancing is “as much as a pattern of thinking as a pattern of behavior…We all should act as if we are carrying the virus—and then adjust our behavior accordingly.” 

Torres’ statement resonated with columnist Marjoire Ingall, reminding her of the concluding line of the narrative section of the Passover Haggadah: “In every generation, a person is obligated to see themself as if they were redeemed from Egypt.” In fact, the two practices are fundamentally similar; both are rooted in visions of a society built on empathy.

Rabbi Shai Held writes emphatically on how the oft-repeated Biblical commandment to remember the Exodus is rooted in memory, and aimed at empathy. For example, the verse, “You shall not oppress a stranger (ger), for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 23:9) is not an appeal to abstract notions of justice or compassion, but to lived experience. In it, and many more verses like it, God reminds the Israelites that the memory of having been an oppressed group in Egypt is what enables them to identify with and support the marginalized groups within their own society. In fact, some rabbinic commentaries feel that this collective memory and empathy are so critical, they are the reason God decreed that the Israelites had to endure those centuries of oppression in the first place!

Held’s approach imparts a powerful urgency to the mandate of the Haggadah; it essentially transforms the seder from a celebration of a long-ago historical event into a framing for our present-day perspective. As he continues, “we should also individually personalize the Torah’s demand that we remember. Each of us is obligated, in the course of our lives, to remember times when we have been exploited or abused by those who had power over us.” In other words, we should see ourselves and live our lives as though we had been enslaved in Egypt – because, in some way or another, we all have been there!  With that realization, we can respond not just with detached sympathy, but genuine empathy towards those who are marginalized in our own contexts, just as God expected from those Biblical Israelites.

If “the stranger” represents those at risk of exploitation or abuse to readers of the Bible, today’s strangers are the elderly or physically compromised who have become outsiders in their own worlds, marginalized by their inability to take part in normal day-to-day life for fear of the effects of COVID-19. In this way, a seder celebrated within the constraints of social distancing is putting oneself in a contemporary Egypt – in the shoes of those who are most vulnerable today.

Torres’ formulation goes even farther, highlighting the reality that someone vulnerable to COVID-19 is never explicitly “exploited or abused,” in Held’s words, but put at risk simply by living a normal day-to-day life along with others who are doing the same. By living as though we are all contagious, we are living with the awareness that our very presence in the world has the potential to cause harm to others – a reality that may be true in contexts far beyond infectious disease.

In fact, the dynamic of contagion and social distancing parallels other forms of systemic inequality and discrimination within a society that are often quietly, but firmly reinforced by the norms and patterns of everyday life. As a result, those who enjoy power or social privilege within those systems often do not recognize it as such, or at whose expense it comes. For example, Carlson’s wondering why those who are “safe” cannot continue to live their regular lives, regardless of the increased danger that may mean for others.

Torres’ point is that the surest way to protect those who are more vulnerable is for people who are less vulnerable to step back as well – to do what academics and activists first call “checking” their privilege, understanding how they benefit from social (or biological) dynamics that adversely affect others, and then what “dismantling” it by consciously not taking advantage of them. In the case of COVID-19, it means everyone pulling back from the public sphere, even at the cost of doing damage to routines and lifestyles, even putting stress on careers, soci-economic status, and personal relationships – not necessarily for personal protection, but in order to create a safe space for others who are more susceptible. In the end, of course, the empathy we practice together makes us all safer.

It is not surprising that Carlson himself would take the less empathetic route. His show has long toyed with themes of white nationalism, an ideology rooted in emphasizing conflict between social and racial groups in America and protecting the privileges that some enjoy to the detriment of others. From there, leaving more people vulnerable to disease for the sake of the greater good is not too far a leap.

His approach, along with those who push to prematurely “restart” the economy, or warn that “the cure may be worse than the virus,” has more in common with the Egyptian taskmasters than the Israelite slaves whose redemption we relive each year. Perhaps the best response to Carlson’s self-centered perspective is the quiet, or even solo seder, one that fully embodies the experience of those who suffered and died for the sake of the ancient Egyptian economy – as well as those who would suffer and die for the sake of our own.

About the Author
Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY.
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