A few nights ago, when I was leading my Passover Seder, I mused whether history might have turned out differently if the ancient Egyptians had been able to make use of modern-day technology – including social media – during the crisis of the ten plagues.
The Passover story teaches us that, on the instructions of God, Moses went to Pharaoh and demanded he immediately cease enslaving the Israelites and allow them to depart from Egypt. Pharaoh adamantly refused to do so. For 210 years, Egyptian society had grown wealthy by exploiting Hebrew slave labor, therefore it was going to take a lot of pressure to get Pharaoh to set the Jewish people free. God responded by smiting the Egyptians with 10 plagues in rapid fire succession; turning the life-giving waters of the Nile into blood, frogs, lice, vermin, killing of livestock, boils, hail, swarms of locusts, three nights and days of total darkness, and finally, the killing of the Egyptian first-born.
Might the Egyptians have better weathered the devastating impact of the ten plagues if they had access to social media? For example, might they had been less tormented by the plague of lice if the Pharaoh’s Royal Task Force on Mitigating the Impact of Plagues had mandated social distancing, thereby preventing the epidemic from jumping from one Egyptian to another? Would they have better navigated the plague of boils if officials had mandated the use of face masks to prevent the spread of disease, or the death of livestock if the Egyptian Surgeon General had urged each Egyptian family to lock down themselves and their livestock in self-quarantine? Interestingly, it was the Israelites, who successfully employed social distancing at a critical moment; staying inside their homes, which they marked with lamb’s blood, so that the Angel of Death passed over their houses and did not kill a single Hebrew first-born child, while slaying the Egyptian ones.
I believe that even if the Egyptians had been in a position to expertly use social media to withstand the campaign to let the Israelites go; such an effort would not have succeeded because of their striking absence of social solidarity. This was exemplified by the nature of the ninth plague of darkness. Our biblical commentators explain the ninth plague was not actually a darkness that affected the eyes, but rather a darkness that affected the heart. Physically, the Egyptians were able to see but they did not feel for the other, they did not care for the other, they showed no empathy for their fellows inflicted with the same plague. In ancient Egyptian society, it was literally every man for himself.
Today, America is going through a terrible plague – the COVID-19 pandemic – that has rapidly reached biblical proportions. As I write these lines, more than half a million Americans have contracted the coronavirus and more than 20,000 have lost their lives, while millions have at least temporarily lost their livelihoods. Yet, amid this enormous human suffering, there has been one silver lining; namely, that unlike the ancient Egyptians, Americans have indeed looked beyond their personal interests and needs; and have summoned the will to be there for each other. As a result of the pandemic we are going through, society has grown more empathetic, compassionate, sensitive, feeling and responsive.
We have seen this ‘we are all in this together’ spirit first and foremost in the heroic work of the doctors, nurses and other health care providers, who have literally risked their own lives – and tragically, sometimes given them – to treat the cascading numbers of people stricken with the virus who have poured in through the doors of our overstretched hospitals and clinics. Other people with ‘essential jobs’ that often put them in the way of danger; police, fire, transportation workers, and supermarket clerks, have exhibited the same kind of quiet heroism. In hard-hit cities like my own New York, thousands have been coming out to their windows, porches and rooftops every evening to set off a cacophony of beautiful noise to express their love for and solidarity with those who are working so hard on behalf of all of us.
Meanwhile, millions sheltering in place at home have been connecting with loved ones, friends and professional colleagues through zoom technology, livestreaming or the unprecedented Hampton Synagogue Seder, produced by my own congregation for national television. Our own Jewish community has demonstrated during this Passover season that social distancing does not mean social isolation. And we are just getting started.
Hopefully within a few months, the worst of the coronavirus crisis will be behind us. Yet, I suspect we will never go back to the ‘normal’ that existed before the crisis – and that is all to the good. Unlike the ancient Egyptians who could not let go of selfishness, and in vivid contrast to the picture that existed until recently of an America that was irredeemably polarized. Americans of all racial religious and political affiliations and varied economic circumstances have used all the technological tools at our disposal, including social media, to grow more empathetic, expand our social horizons, and to enlarge our sympathies. In short, through the exigency of this crisis, we are becoming a kinder and more humane society. We must never let go of that.