Eight years ago I was diagnosed with cancer. Overnight my status changed to that of a cancer patient who, like thousands of others in the same situation, had to face a new reality. Before this whenever I would hear of someone with cancer there would swell up inside me the feeling of sympathy for their distress and the difficult challenges they had to face undergoing treatment with an uncertain outcome. But I could not truly appreciate what they were experiencing as before my diagnosis and treatment I didn’t really comprehend the implications of their situation. What I have been through in the past eight years changed all of that. Now what I experience whenever I hear of someone with cancer is more akin to empathy, the difference being that I have ‘walked a mile in their shoes,’ and so fully understand what they are going through.
This Pesach, for so many of us across the world, we are going to experience a very different type of Seder. Ma nishtana? In all other years we have had all the family and friends sitting with us around the Seder table, but this year there are just the two of us. Unable to travel and having to self isolate means that in some cases where four generations would gather together around the Seder table, in a number of homes individuals may be celebrating alone. However and wherever it takes place this year, we will all have a new perspective on parts of the Seder experience, for most of us are beginning to understand just what a plague is and what the loss of freedom means.
The Covid19 Corona virus has been termed variously an epidemic, a pandemic and a plague. It has spread around the globe almost as fast as the plague of frogs proliferated in Egypt thousands of years ago. In reality one cannot compare the 10 plagues in Egypt to the current spread of the coronavirus, yet in some way we are beginning to understand the fear, anxiety and panic that are created when a plague strikes at the heart of a community. At the same time for those of us in the west, we have lived these past three generations with the greatest freedoms that a democratic society can offer, but for the first time are experiencing what a curbing of some of those freedoms implies.
There have been copious amounts written and broadcast about the effects this virus will have on individuals, on families, on communities and indeed on society itself; from how our health systems are dealing with the medical and psychological consequences, to how our wealth systems will recover economically. Yet perhaps there is one issue that has been less discussed in this debate, and that is how it will affect our ability to see the ‘other’. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in his new book Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, writes about how liberal democracies are at risk as the fundamentals of morality and concern for others have been lost with the focus in today’s world on the ‘self’. To quote ‘If we focus on the ‘I’ and lose the ‘We’ ……. we lose our care for others …and our feeling of collective responsibility’. When Lord Sacks wrote his book I don’t think he could ever have imagined how prescient it would be. This pandemic which happened so suddenly and comprehensively has brought home with great urgency his message. In the new reality in which we find ourselves changing the paradigm, by moving from an egocentric view of the world to a view of shared community and shared destiny where we see and reach out to the ‘other’, those not like us but part of our society, is needed now more than ever. One way of learning how to see the ‘other’ is through experiencing what they are going through, by cultivating empathy.
With this in mind we can look at this 21st century plague in relation to two key parts of our Seder night, the ten plagues and our journey from slavery to freedom. During the Seder we tell the tale of our people’s journey from slavery to freedom, and when we recount the plagues as each one is mentioned we dip a finger into our glass of wine to ‘spill’ some out and lessen the amount we drink, as a sign of acknowledging the Egyptians’ suffering. Even though they were our evil enemy inflicting unprecedented hardships on our forefathers, we retain the custom of showing a modicum of sympathy for their plight. Through our current experience of living with the plague of Covid19 we can now identify in some small way with the punishment that God brought upon the Egyptians. I am not necessarily suggesting that this virus is a punishment for humanity, wrought about by a vengeful deity, but one does have to stop and consider just what mankind has inflicted on this world of ours in recent history. How we have interfered with the rhythms of nature and changed the patterns of life in every sphere.
The key theme of the Seder is encapsulated in one of the names given to Pesach, Zemun Cherutainu, a time when we celebrate our people’s journey from slavery to freedom. So many of the rituals practiced during the Seder illustrate the contrast between slavery and freedom, between the hardships we endured in the past to the freedoms we enjoy now. Yet there are many people around the world today who have not been able to enjoy those freedoms. People who live under repressive regimes, people living in war zones, people living with disease and hunger and so many living within the prison of their own minds, suffering from depression and mental illness. My father was a Holocaust survivor who never spoke to us about his ordeals in the death camps during the war. He wanted to shield us from the horrors he experienced, he put them behind him and moved forward to create a happy family home. Sadly he died years before so many survivors recounted their ordeals, which graphically brought home to our generation some of their experiences. Yet how could those who had never lived through the terrors of war fully understand and appreciate just what it entailed. We could have sympathy for them, but not really deep empathy.
However this Pesach we are living in a new reality as things have changed. This year we have a small inkling of what it is like to live in fear and have our freedom restricted. For our forefathers in Egypt daily life was not just a matter of restrictions on their movements, but a battle for survival through the toil and bondage they were subjected to. They lived and died for generations as slaves, unable to experience any form of freedom. Unfortunately slavery in the modern world still exists in both developed and underdeveloped countries. Have we all become so inured to the advertisements picturing the dejected and rejected amongst the poorer nations, and stories we have read of people trafficking and modern day slave workers, that we no longer care about them? They are the ‘other’, those not like us; they are the ones who suffered the epidemic of Ebola, Sars and famine; they are the migrants escaping war and economic deprivation; they are the ones that live far away and whose lives do not intersect with ours. But not any longer. Now it is the whole world that is interconnected in its distress and anguish. Every person in every country is feeling the anxiety and fear that Covid19 has wrought amongst us. We feel the suffering, we feel the pain and many of us personally know someone, somewhere who has been struck down with it. For so many of us our sympathy is now turning into empathy.
And there is hope. One of the other names of Pesach is Chag HaAviv, the festival of spring, and maybe this brings with it a message of hope in our beleaguered times; a hope that our redemption lies in what the season of spring brings. It is a time of rebirth, renewal and reawakening; buds are appearing on the trees, flowers are sprouting through the soil, animals that have hibernated all winter are now emerging. Spring is a harbinger of longer, warmer summer days to come. Just as the natural world reawakens in spring, so we, the human race, should be reawakened to the message this pandemic is telling us. Can we review the way we have been living our lives? Can we take greater responsibility for ourselves and others? Can we reach out to the ‘other’ and those who need us? Can we learn to heal ourselves and the planet that we all share? For healing is what the world desperately needs right now. This Pesach hopefully something positive will emerge from this crisis, and just as the journey from slavery to freedom transformed us into the Jewish nation, hopefully this crisis will transform the world into more unified nations.