Monday, January 30th | 9 Shevat 5783

March 29, 2020 8:36 am

As We Celebrate Passover, We Must Learn From the Coronavirus

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avatar by Moshe Pitchon


Staff members of the Metropolitan Council’s program assisting victims of domestic abuse are seen organizing a Passover food distribution in New York City. Photo: Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty..

“Epidemic” and “pandemic” are scientific terms designed to describe a threat that requires immediate extreme responses to forestall a life form from infiltrating and annihilating other life forms such as ours.

When not reduced solely to a scientific perspective, the appropriate term for this sort of intrusion is “plague” — as in the “Ten Plagues of Egypt.”

True, today it is not blood, frogs, lice, flies, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, or darkness, but a single virus that is menacing the most powerful civilizations in the world. It is not the firstborn that are being killed, but their parents and grandparents. Scientific terminology aside, what we are facing is a plague.

The Hebrew scriptures refer to plagues as “signs,” events that convey a message; all plagues carry a demand.

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The misery that fell upon the greatest empire of its time was that Pharaoh and his “magicians” weren’t paying attention to the message — their eyes were on the phenomena itself. How could have they done otherwise? They were unprepared, having been too busy building armies and forts to protect their borders; and bigger and more luxurious pyramids, tombs to satisfy their egos.

When the plagues came, it all seemed so sudden, so “out-of-the-blue.” Forced to contend with the imminent threat, there was no time to deal with its deep root.

After the severity of each new level of the plague finally brought them to their knees, they had no choice but to heed the message. Their heeding lasted just a short time, and eventually, they condemned their civilization to end.

The message then as today was pretty much the same: Human beings are to be stewards of the world — respecting, if not protecting, every natural environment and every animal habitat, certainly not encroaching on their territory.

If we want to live long lives, we should do it not to become full-time tourists embarking every time on bigger and more luxurious cruise ships. We should meditate on what we’ve learned during our lifetime and help the new generations — if nothing else — through cautionary wisdom.

Instead of continuing building crowded cities, eroding coastal lines, and ignoring life other than ours, we should be focused on the fact that we share the world with all forms of life.

Haven’t we learned anything from Egypt? Is that the reason why we don’t read the Torah, and if we do, we interpret it as something that happened to the “other” but cannot happen to us?

Very soon, Jews are going to sit around a table to ponder this message. Each year, we are commanded to behave as though each one of us had personally left the land of Egypt.

This year, that leap of our imagination should not be too difficult to accomplish.

Most probably, unable to be with our whole families, we will be able to commemorate Pesach not as a social gathering, but for the right learning reason: to remember the message that the world doesn’t exist for us to own, but to share and protect.

Moshe Pitchon is the director of BY, a 21st Century Judaism project. He has served as a rabbi in Latin America and the United States, and has taught Jewish philosophy and biblical literature.

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