The Passover Lesson That Can Save us All
The central tenet of the Jewish holiday, Passover, is the celebration of God’s deliverance of the Jews from slavery. But that deliverance came because the Jews were warned to paint their doors with the blood of a sacrificial lamb so that God’s wrath would spare the Jews of the slaughter of their first-born sons. That was the final plague Moses proclaimed against the Egyptians. The pharaoh’s refusal to free the Jews when faced with this tenth, terrible plague forced God’s hand. But the Jews had to act on God’s instruction, on faith that their sons would be spared. Yet, again, fleeing the attack by Egyptian soldiers, they gathered at the edge of the sea, acting on the belief that they would somehow cross it. And God parted the sea, allowing the Jews to pass, then folded the sea back, drowning the pursuing soldiers.
A very dramatic story, one braced against the grim history of the holocaust. But what is the lesson here? First is the recognition that the entire Passover legend is based on no traceable truths. There is no evidence that Jews were enslaved in Egypt, that almost a million escaped and journeyed through Sinai eventually to found Israel. Passover marks not only divine interventions but also the willing faith of the Jews and their daring decision to follow divine instruction and act accordingly.
“The denial of susceptibility rages even as proof of the contagion mushrooms exponentially.”
Deliverance from slavery resonates with the experience of pestilence. It is fitting that that deliverance was wrought by ten plagues. But slavery was the greater plague. Hitler viewed the Jews as a global pestilence to be eradicated. The very idea of pestilence has pursued Jews at least from the time of the diaspora, after the sack of the temple and the genocide inflicted by the Romans in 60 AD. Almost everywhere in Europe where plagues occurred, and they occurred regularly, Jews were often blamed and punished. These reprisals, though obviously racist, represented attempts to secure deliverance from pestilence.
Today the coronavirus has arrived as a massive plague that spreads because of the core of human civilization—the instinctive trend toward socialization. We can now remove most traces of mythologization. COVID-19, like most viruses, exists in the natural order that ties them to the great evolutionary chain which all living things partake in.
Deliverance from this pestilence requires action faithful to belief in the scientific theory of contagion. Like the enslaved Jews of ancient Egypt, apocryphal as that story may be, people today must act on the recommendations offered by science.
Yet the tendency to assert blame on others, invoking racial and xenophobic slurs, has once again emerged. The denial of susceptibility rages even as proof of the contagion mushrooms exponentially. The allocation and the hoarding of medical resources recapitulate ideas of special privileging. Our democratic society is back-sliding, falling prey to eons-old fears framing one against the other.
The major preventative, physical isolation, also creates social isolation. But this preventive measure feels like an ancient enslavement, an imprisonment. But it is an act we must follow, as the Passover story reminds us, in order to find deliverance. And we must do it generously and faithfully.
We will prevail. Only save ourselves from the worst.