Pesach, Powerlessness, and the Pandemic

Passover, Easter, and Ramadan will take place over the next seven weeks. Many Jews, Christians, and Muslims are reexamining their relationship to their sacred stories in light of the coronavirus pandemic. These sacred stories share elements of despair and redemption, death and rebirth, introspection and action. Like many Members of the Tribe, I’ve been especially drawn now to the ten Biblical plagues in the Exodus narrative, the eser makkot, that prominently appear in the Hagaddah.

Biblical scholars offer different interpretations of these plagues. Those who believe in the literal truth of the Bible stretch meteorological science to “explain” the plagues. For example, they theorize how variations in climate change could have accounted for a blood-like appearance to the Nile River (plague 1), an invasion of frogs (plague 2), and a swarm of locusts (plague 8). But the Bible was never meant to be a meteorology textbook, and faith and empiricism are separate categories of experience. Neither one depends on the other to be true.

Some scholars who take a literary approach note that many of the plagues are assaults on Egyptian gods (the sun god, the Nile). By attacking the gods of the Egyptians, the God of the Hebrews “will judge the Egyptian gods (as false)” (Exodus 12:12) and, by implication, invalidate slavery. If the Egyptian divine belief system that sanctions slavery is false, the institution of slavery crumbles. Literary scholars do not need to pseudo-scientifically rationalize every plague because they perceive a profound theological message in the Exodus narrative: God forbids one person from owning another. This approach works for those who understand the Bible seriously but not literally as well as for Biblical literalists. But this interpretative view does not challenge people to engage experientially with their faith.

Still, other contemporary scholars dismiss the entire story of the Exodus from Egypt. They argue that there is no historical or archaeological proof of Egyptian enslavement of the Israelites or a subsequent mass exodus. Moreover, the number of Israelites enslaved in Egypt is implausible. By dismissing the historicity of the Biblical Exodus, these scholars do not need to explain the plagues: no story, no plagues! But transformative Biblical events often originate in some historical experience. Historical evidence may not exist because a harsh climate may have destroyed clay tablets and papyri over time, or because the vanquished Egyptians had no desire to mention the victorious Israelites.

Cultural anthropologists understand the plagues as a primal response to fear and powerlessness born of chaotic, uncontrollable events. I’m experiencing these feelings because of the pandemic. I’ve had a few dicey experiences: visiting Refuseniks in the Former Soviet Union, flying into New York on 9/11 between the first and second attacks of the Twin Towers, and flying out of Ben Gurion Airport on July 14, 2014, during the Gaza war, a day on which Hamas targeted the airport with heavy rocket fire. We took off but turned around after an hour for an emergency landing because of a mechanical problem, only to fly the next day under more rocket fire. I felt a healthy dose of fear but not powerlessness. In these situations, there was someone in control, even if the outcome was unknown. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, I now know a feeling of powerlessness. Even if leaders of every nation were competent, they could manage the pandemic better but would powerless to “control” it.

While I deeply miss the physical touch of family and friends, being unable to be present physically with family members who are in poor health makes me feel especially powerless. I love them so much and cannot give them a reassuring hug or simply be physically present with them. Fulfilling the mitzvah of visiting those who are ill, bikkur cholim is life-giving and healing (Nedarim 39b-40a), as the rabbis said. There’s also a practical purpose to these visits: ensuring that those who are ill have their needs met. Are medications given at the right dosage and at the correct times? Are meals prepared according to a diet directed by a medical condition? Are linens clean? Hospital staff members do the best they can to meet a patient’s needs, but they are overwhelmed. I’m grateful for the option of virtual visits, but not having analog visits is agony.

Faith will hold me during the Seder and in the long nights ahead, independent of historical proof of the Exodus. But I wonder how we’ll relate to these ten ancient plagues at our Seders considering the current COVID-19 virus, and how generations from now will understand the meaning of this pandemic plague. Most importantly, I will pray this year that the powerlessness of physical distancing will empower us to find greater social closeness in the post-pandemic world.

About the Author
Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is a national thought leader, organizational consultant and author on the American Jewish community with a specialty in synagogue life. He is President & CEO of the Herring Consulting Network.
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