Exactly two years ago, according to the reckoning of the Hebrew calendar, that is, I preached a sermon on the ‘new coronavirus’ that had put a Chinese city, Wuhan, into lockdown. It was Parashat Bo and the sermon was called ‘Between the Headlines.’
It was given on the 1st of February before any of us (non-epidemiologists, at least) had any notion that the ‘novel coronavirus’ (as well still called it back then) would alight upon our shores and turn our planet upside down for two years.
At the time, I wrote – and here I am doing the unspeakable: quoting myself –
Like many of you, I’ve been following the headlines about the Coronavirus outbreak. While I leave assessments of this new virus to the epidemiologists and public health experts, I think we can glean meaningful insights about our moral responses by reading between the headlines. What is the fate and experience of the people of the city of Wuhan who have been isolated in complete lockdown? Why has so much of the more salacious reporting emphasized the danger of contagion and the closing of borders instead of focusing on the heroics of the Chinese health care workers providing care to thousands or the myriad kindnesses performed by ordinary people during these moments of crisis? For all of the language of pandemic and global emergency, how does this crisis speak to our moral emergency?
I remember I really struggled to pronounce the word ‘epidemiologist’ for the first couple of weeks. After two years in a global pandemic, it rolls off the tongue real quick now. The thrust of my sermon at the time was examining the ‘moral state of emergency’–the discrimination suffered by Asian-Americans and the, dare I say prophetic, insight that healthcare workers would be underappreciated in this crisis. The sermon draws an analogy between ‘choshech’, the plague of darkness, and the isolation of Wuhan’s lockdown. Boy, do I not need to revisit that theme!
What I would like to revisit, however is the following line, and then ‘d’rash’ it, expand upon it:
Both in the Biblical narrative and today, the disasters we are confronted with reveal much more about how we meet their encounter than about the disaster itself.
As we read about the cumulative consequences of the plagues in this week’s (and the preceding) Parashah, it is only natural to focus on the ultimate outcome: the plague of the death of the firstborn. It is the most shocking, horrifying consequence that comes out of the direst and cruellest of moral failings: the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Yet, this too, will be the road less travelled in my remarks today. I do not want to address the theology of free will. Or grapple with the notion of Divine intervention. Or even, engage in a retrospective of these grim two years. What I would like to do is create a sense of journey, a pilgrimage of the soul, as we contemplate the Exodus narrative, and as we, like the ancient Israelites, pack up our Judaism; our Jewishness and step into a fraught and uncertain existence.
What we hope to explore over the next few weeks (consider it a sermon series, if you will), is how Judaism helps us on the way; both in constructing our worldview, bolstering our morals, building community and infusing our lives with sacred practice. What is the ultimate value and purpose of our Judaism? How has that ultimate value and purpose been revealed in these last two years? And how can we, its beauty greater than the riches of all Egypt, take it with us into our proverbial wilderness?
How does Judaism help us meet the moment?
Parashat Bo offers us our first framing: that of the Master Story. I spoke a little about the Jewish Master Story a few weeks ago, for Parashat Shemot as we commemorate and reimagine the birth of Moses. This week, we are granted the opportunity to internalize our Master Story – the Exodus from Egypt – in visceral ways.
This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly: it is a passover offering or “protective offering”; Heb. pesaḥ. to the Eternal.” Ex 10:11
Later on in the text, we will learn of the obligation to recount the Pesach story – to make it our Master Story. But right now, we are given the instruments of how we re-enact that Story through the template of that first Pesach. The first Pesach became our roadmap for all future Pesachs and in fact, a pointer to the redemption of our world. It shows us some of the elements we still observe today: the eating of matzah, and yes, there are some who do wear sandals and hold a staff at the Seder!
The first powerful, poignant and to some degree, shocking, concept is that the Jewish people are in a sense born of blood and fire. The peaceful conclusion of the Book of Genesis is no more and we are plunged into existential crisis. The Jewish people have to pivot, be nimble, be resilient. The Exodus story provides us with a paradigm for that resilience. Perhaps in pre-pandemic times, we would not have been invited to contemplate the cumulative effect of the ten plagues upon the psyche of all people subjugated to them; Egyptian and Israelite alike. Now, after almost two years of a global pandemic, we find ourselves on edge with the cumulative effect of each new variant. The Torah asks of us: how can we build resilience to the recurring crises of our world?
This Torah portion offers us many opportunities for building resilience. In my original sermon, two years ago, I looked at how the Israelites responded with solidarity to the encroaching darkness of the ninth plague. One of the most stirring examples of that resilience is dashing the lintels of our houses with blood: we marked ourselves–bound ourselves in sacred oath to the core of our being. We are Jews. First and foremost, we are Jews, even if the ‘malach hamavet’, the Angel of Death, passes over our head. Strengthening that identity and consciousness, and the values that flow from it, is our starting point. Our Jewishness comes with effort and sacrifice–but it is also our guarantor of not only our survival but more importantly, our humanity.
Like the ancient Israelites, we cannot escape the consequences of plague, nor the accumulation of pain and suffering. But also, like the ancient Israelites, we are bound to elevate this story of suffering to that of resilience and flourishing. That journey starts with commitment and also, I think, with falling in love with who we are and all we are called to be.