“This is not an emergency, but…” So began the voicemail left on my personal cell phone by a member of my congregation. In this day and age, that “but” has an ominous ring. What came next, however, was not an emerging health concern but a rather throbbing faith concern. “How do we talk about the ten plagues at the seder when there is a plague going on in our world right now?” Some family members, this congregant confided, are lobbying to skip that section of the Haggadah so as not to cause more fear and anxiety, particularly for the children sitting at the Passover table.
How indeed do we talk about plagues in a time of global pandemic? How do we talk about an invisible force that rains down suffering and distress on unsuspecting victims, when a similar contagion torments communities around the globe? Should we omit any reference to the tenth plague entirely at our seders this year; that eerie depiction of the “Angel of Death” silently prowling for firstborns who don’t have blood painted protectively on their doorposts? Perhaps we should just omit that part of the story on this particular Passover. It’s probably not a good idea to be dipping our fingers into our wine glasses anyway as we call out each of the names of those plagues!
On the other hand, maybe this is just the right time for some family God-talk. While there is still plenty of unknown about the transmission, and certainly the mitigation of this virus, most people of faith do not believe that coronavirus is a plague in the biblical sense. As we attempt to navigate between modernity and antiquity, it is critically important to distinguish between scientific and biblical language. “Pandemic” is a diagnostic term for a disease that affects a large number of people worldwide. A “plague,” in the religious sense, is an exceptional phenomenon wielded by God for a variety of instructive purposes: to punish, to teach, to display God’s power over other deities, etc. Whether we read biblical plagues as historical accounts or as sacred metaphors, a “plague” by definition is limited to the time and place of the Bible. We must be very careful not to ascribe theological causation to modern sickness, storms, natural disasters, or other inexplicable misfortunes. It is a chillul Ha’shem, a desecration of God’s name, to suggest that a good person gets afflicted with or dies from COVID-19 because God has decided to smite today’s world with a pandemic. Teach your children at this year’s Passover Seder that Corona virus is not a plague; that God is not the cause of suffering. A pandemic is not a plague, and what God may have done countless generations ago is not the way God acts in the world today.
If Jewish religious history is anything, it is a description of God’s constantly changing strategies for bringing goodness and righteousness into the world. From the Garden of Eden to the family of Abraham and Sarah; the freeing of slaves to the covenant at Sinai; the voice of the prophets to the wisdom of the Rabbis; the exalted deeds of Tzaddikim (extraordinarily righteous people) to the potential of every single person to perform transformative acts of loving kindness—Judaism is the chronicle of a God who enters human history with acts of conspicuous salvation, then retracts so that we can do the same.
If you are looking for examples of Godliness today, talk about the courage of nurses and doctors; paramedics and police officers. Describe the long lines of people waiting to donate blood, or those who have filled collection bins with food and supplies for those who lack them. Recall the supermarket employees who go to work everyday so that we can continue to shop for food; the teachers offering uninterrupted instruction and attention to their students; the journalists reporting and disseminating critical information every day; the clergy and volunteers who have brought comfort and care to people in their communities. Is there anything more holy than parents hunkering down with their children, or adult children making sure their older parents are safe?
No, God did not cause Coronavirus, nor are we living through a plague. But one of the gifts of being human is the opportunity that every situation in life provides us for reflection and learning. Perhaps that’s why the Talmud instructs us to recite a blessing not only when something good happens, but even in the face of something very bad. So go ahead and dip your pinky (or maybe your spoon) into your wine and call out the names of those ancient plagues. As you distinguish between plagues and pandemics, talk about all the things we have learned about ourselves over the past few weeks. Reflect on where you’ve witnessed human beings acting in remarkably holy ways. In short, when it comes to the Ten Plagues in the Haggadah, by all means, don’t skip; dip! And then, in time-honored Passover practice, discuss!