Of Plagues and Pandemics

Rabbi Robert Goldstein, Temple Emanuel 

For many Christians and Jews, this is one of the holiest weeks of the year. Jews are in the midst of Passover, a week-long celebration of their ancient ancestors’ liberation from Egyptian slavery. On Friday and Sunday, Christians will observe the death and resurrection of the founder of their 2,000-year-old faith.

On the first two nights of Passover, a seder is held — a dinner rich with rituals and traditional foods. Families gather around the table (although this year, most likely through the magic of Zoom!) and retell the dramatic epic of the pharaoh’s unwillingness to free the Israelite slaves. The Egyptian king’s own stubbornness led to the 10 plagues, causing his people needless pain and agony. The plagues included the Nile River turning to blood, frogs covering the land, a period of darkness, cattle disease and finally the harshest, the killing of the Egyptians’ firstborn sons.

At the seder, when the story of the Israelites’ redemption from slavery is told, at the mention of each of the 10 plagues the participants take a drop of wine from their full cup to acknowledge the suffering of the Egyptian people. In the end, the plagues softened pharaoh’s heart, but his initial willfulness caused great misery.

During these last weeks, some have speculated that the coronavirus is a 21st century version of an ancient plague. That reasoning is flawed. The 10 plagues of old were punishment for a king who believed he had the right to enslave another nation. While the coronavirus has led to untold suffering among innocent people around the globe, it is not divine retribution for some shameful contemporary sin.

Still, in recent days I have seen many signs of the Divine Hand at work.

Holiness is revealed each day in the selflessness of the doctors who, when they took the Hippocratic Oath, swore “to help the sick according to my ability and judgment.” There is something sacred in the work of nurses, technicians and hospital staff who put their own well being and that of their families at risk, because that is what they are called to do.

And there are so many others whose altruism eases our own distress and fear, like the first-responders, the cashiers at grocery stores and pharmacies, the men and women who deliver the goods we order from the safety of our homes. There is holiness in their work too.

The COVID-19 pandemic is frightening — devastating for many, an experience that will change our lives forever. But we will survive with our faith intact so long as we look for that spark of virtue and righteousness in the many acts of humanity and self-sacrifice demonstrated by so many. It is in the work of their hands and the fruits of their labor that holiness and hope can always be found.

Rabbi Robert S. Goldstein of Temple Emanuel of Andover occasionally submits columns to the Townsman.



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