Our Voices (HaKolot Sh'lanu)

Pesach – The Torah Ten Plagues – Rabbinic Thought – Covid-19 and God

Once again Pesach/Passover lies behind us. This is my favorite Jewish holiday because it has historical roots. While Pesach, in my opinion, with its emphasis on liberation and freedom represents the very origin of Jewish nationhood, the story in its context of the Book of Exodus contains some disturbing elements.

You may have guessed from the title of the blog that I am referring to the biblical Ten Plagues and the deadly plague of the Covid-19 we are experiencing globally, as I write this.

Deuteronomy 11:13-17 reads, If you will earnestly heed the mitzvot (commandments) that I give you this day, to love the LORD your God and to serve him with all your heart and all your soul, then I will favor your land with rain at the proper season – rain in autumn and rain in spring – and you will have an ample harvest of grain and wine and oil. You will eat to contentment. I will assure abundance in the fields for your cattle. Take care lest you be tempted to forsake God and turn to false gods in worship. For then the wrath of the LORD your God will be directed against you. He will close the heavens and hold back the rain; the earth will not yield its produce. You will soon disappear from the good land which the LORD is giving you.

This warning was allegedly given to Israel. Egypt and their pharaoh, without having received a similar warning, enslaved Israel and were punished for doing so by the Ten Plagues. While this is not the place to discuss the historicity of the Exodus narrative and the story of the plagues, for me it is shocking every time the Haggadah is read that the whole population of Egypt was punished by the LORD rather than the perpetrators only. This was what we call collateral damage.

Did the God of justice really intend this mass punishment that included huge numbers of innocents?

The authors of the Haggadah, a collective work compiled probably during the Talmudic period, were keenly aware of this ethical dilemma. This becomes manifest in the tradition that as we read the text and recall each plague, we dip a finger into the wine and then tap it on the plate. While there are various interpretations of this tradition, the one that makes the most sense is that while the use of wine in the context of Jewish worship is always connected with joy, we must never drink to the affliction of human beings who suffer. Collateral damage is never something one drinks to in Judaism!

We also know the Midrash in which the lOrD reprimands the angels wanting to sing their joy as the Egyptian military in pursuit of liberated Israel drown in the red Sea. According to Talmud, (Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b), God silences them with, How dare you sing for joy when My creatures are dying?

Finally to Covid-19.

Jewish traditional theology teaches, as we read in Deuteronomy above, that the calamity that befalls Jews and by extension all human beings, is brought about by God as punishment. While this is difficult to believe, one of Judaism’s well-known rabbis (I am intentionally omitting the name and affiliation of this person), publicly interpreted the Holocaust as punishment of European Jewry for their assimilationist practices, etc. In his alleged words: the Holocaust occurred because the cancer of assimilation had to be cut out from the body of Judaism.

Why mention this? Because there are once again voices heard that associate Covid-19 and our present global catastrophe with God’s judgment of a sinful humanity. It is not healthy to take certain biblical texts literally. Fundamentalist Judaism, Christianity and Islam are dangerous religious orientations.

Covid-19 is a virus brought about by a natural process. It may have come into being within an animal, some geneticists think, and subsequently transmitted to a human. No supernatural process in its generation or transmission process was involved. This said, I would suggest we leave God, in whatever form we believe, or other alleged supernatural origins and actions out of the equation!

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Our Voices features the insights and thoughts of  CBI members and guests. Topics include, but are not limited to, personal insights on the weekly Torah portion, thoughts about community, Jewish identity, culture and more. We welcome your thoughts.  If you wish to contribute, please send your blog post to alan@alansilverman.com, along with any pictures you'd like to include. Thanks and we look forward to sharing your thoughts with the CBI community.