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Passover 5781: Why the Plagues?

March 12, 2021

L’Fi Dati: As I See It

A Passover Message from Rabbi Sam Weintraub

Why the Plagues?

Dahm! Tz’far’dei’ah!

Blood! Frogs! Insects! Wild animals! Pestilence! Boils! Hail! Locusts! Darkness! Death of the First Borns!

This year, as I prepare for Passover, and as in no prior year, my imagination turns to the plagues. The Coronavirus pandemic has given me a taste of what it must have been like to be an Egyptian just before the Israelite Exodus. Stuck in your home, isolated, praying for your family’s safety, all as the natural ecology is upended, toxins are unleashed in the air that you breathe, and finally, so many homes touched by death.

What was the point of the plagues?

Many of us were reared on a caricatured interpretation of the Exodus story, wherein the plagues are unleashed by a just and furious G-d against the vicious and irremediably evil Pharaoh.

The truth is more nuanced. Ovadia Sforno was a 16th Century Italian Rabbi and Bible commentator who believed that only the tenth plague, death of the first borns, and the drowning at the Red Sea were punitive, meant to castigate Pharaoh and the Egyptians for enslaving the Israelites.

The first nine plagues were essentially pedagogic. They were meant to give Pharoah and the Egyptian people the opportunity to wake up, to see the truth and follow a just path. Yes, G-d wanted Pharaoh to take responsibility, to free the Israelites but first G-d wanted Pharaoh to free himself from an old and vicious cycle—the Big Lie—wherein he could not see the basic humanity that he shared with the Israelites.

Tragically, however, and even after the death of the first borns, Pharaoh persists in his denial and lies. He pursues the Israelites until the Red Sea, where he finally meets his own catastrophic destruction.

COVID-19 has laid bare broad societal faults and inequities, which mostly pre-dated it by decades and even centuries, including economic injustice, racism and ecological devastation. I do not believe that G-d sent it as some kind of punishment for our poor judgments and immoral policies. But I pray that—unlike the Biblical plagues—it will serve successfully as a wake up call.

The suffering of the pandemic can be redemptive if we listen. Five hundred thousand of our fellow Americans (the real number is likely much higher) have died this past year of COVID-19. We will honor them if we can imagine each and every one, before taking their last breath, calling out “Look at yourselves! What are you doing? How did we get here? Are you going to make it better?”

The collective trauma of the past year—our contemporary plagues—resulted from a confluence of cruelty, age-old prejudice, and willful ignorance. When we create a society where millions are employed in the most vulnerable occupations at grossly inadequate wages, it should not surprise us when an economic jolt puts them on bread lines. When for generations people of color are unable to rise, despite their efforts, and work disproportionately in dangerous front line jobs, and are packed into ghettos with poor air quality and grossly inadequate health facilities, it should not surprise us that their death rate from COVID-19 is three times that of whites. And exacerbating all of this is our devastation of the planet, where according to some experts the destruction of the natural habitats of many animals has pushed them and their germs into contact with other species, including ours, causing the early transmission of disease.

I am a person of faith and I share the Bible’s very optimistic estimation of human potential. We were created “little less than Divine” (Psalm 8:5). Every day I thank G-d for the millions of beautiful acts which have kept us safe this past year. Sanitation workers, grocery clerks, teachers, doctors, nurses, orderlies, pharmacy techs, and so many others have worked past the point of exhaustion to keep you and me as hopeful and healthy as we can be until COVID-19 is tamed.

But my religion is a rational one. We are most like G-d when we exercise our intelligence and our creativity. All of our prayers of thanksgiving for essential workers and mourning for COVID victims are hollow if they do not move us to sustained and courageous action.

We have the ability to improve our environment, to dismantle ghettos and the supremacist thinking which rationalizes them, and to care equally for one another. Over the last year, photographs from outer space have shown already a lessening in air pollution because of a reduction in air travel and other atmospheric disruptions. We see initiatives to concentrate vaccination efforts in communities which are poor and of color. And my faith is restored every morning when I think of our President and Vice-President and hundreds of others in our new administration at work in their offices, with no fanfare or bluster, building a scientific, virus fighting infrastructure step by step.

I know how hard it is to believe, but one day COVID-19 will be over. But it will be critical then that we not look back on it as a terrible but aberrant chapter in our otherwise healthy history. As public health experts are already warning, unless we take concerted action soon we will face another pandemic before long.

I can’t tell you how much it hurts me to share this with you, especially as we approach our most hopeful Holiday, the celebration of our national birth. I wish I could say that COVID-19 and all the devastation of the past year are a horrible, but unique and passing episode.

But we all know better. Unless we address, soon and head on, the underlying conditions which allowed this pandemic to be so murderous, we will be like Pharaoh and his courtiers, marching with dulled hearts and closed minds into more pain and more suffering.

I’m sharing this not to hurt or depress you or me. I’m sharing it to remind you that we are not powerless. If we change, if we eradicate supremacist thinking, if we create cities where all people can learn and earn and breathe, if we cut back deforestation and fossil fuel dependence, then we can reverse course.

One of the blessings of this pandemic is the lesson we learned about our interdependence. We now know how vital are the people who bag our groceries or clean our streets or fill our prescriptions. This awareness is a great advance. Our privilege and our destiny, as a species, as Jews and as Americans lies in how wonderfully diverse and inextricably tied up we all are with one another.

I wish you and your families a Chag Kasher V’samei’ach, a Happy, Kosher Passover,

Rabbi Weintraub

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