Accepting the crown of divine majesty in the time of coronavirus

Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon
(photo credit: Courtesy)

We are living in uncertain times, as a global pandemic rages and we begin anew to understand the preciousness and precariousness of life. 

I thought deeply about what I wanted my message to be this Passover. There seems to be only one topic on everyone’s minds at the moment - and as we in Israel are in a constantly ramping-up population-wide lockdown, perhaps we need to address the relationship between COVID-19 and Passover. In the modern world, we have a nexus of technology and science - one of the most potent combinations we have ever encountered. However, despite our great advancements and sophistication, we can be in no doubt who the ba’al habayit (master of the house) really is.

This understanding is also central to our comprehension of the plagues in Egypt, which were the catalyst for the Exodus. The message could not be clearer. While it will obviously be very difficult this year for families to be forced to hold their seder separately - or in much smaller numbers than they are accustomed, there are matters we can still talk about - not least that the Almighty rules the earth. 

Egypt went through something much worse than coronavirus - they had diseases that were even more highly transmissible. In reality, we have to hope that the coronavirus will not affect most Jews. However, if we cast our minds back to how instrumental God was in our leaving Egypt and what effect the plagues had on the Egyptians and the absence of any effect on the Children of Israel, we can take heart. There were 10 plagues in Egypt and some commentators suggest there were hundreds more by the Red Sea.

The Vilna Gaon taught that none of the plagues affected us, the Israelites. The Egyptians received them all. Moreover, Ha’Rav Blumenzweig noted that thousands died, but the Children of Israel had no casualties from the plagues. There is protection. God loves us so much and he wants to protect us.

Experiencing the current pandemic puts the miracles that we recall at Passover into perspective. This is heightened further still when we think about Egypt’s position in the ancient world. 

Egypt was an empire, one of the largest the world has ever known, with an ostensibly all-powerful Pharaoh at its political and religious heart. What could a downtrodden and enslaved people do against such might? And yet, despite this enormous influence and dominance, God showed that He and only He, is truly in control.

This fact gets to the heart of why we tell the story of the Exodus at the Passover seder. Of course we want to thank and praise God, and show that we have that precious but potent mixture of belief and faith. However, I think that there is another central theme at play here. It is also about going through a process - something that our current experience may put into focus.

Someone who only thinks of the Exodus as securing national freedom has missed the point. It is also very much about one’s personal freedom. In Egypt, there was neither national nor personal freedom, and the two are inextricably linked. If a person leaves the Passover seder the same way as they entered it, then they’ve failed to absorb its message. It is supposed to be transformative and take us to a different place.

One of the seder’s key messages is not explicitly written in the text, but it has become very much part of tradition. It will be painful this year when seder night is supposed to be a time when we open up our homes and hearts to guests. We want to exclaim that anyone who wants to come should be able to. Although, perhaps in the absence of the potential to physically embody that precept, it can still be foremost in our minds. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik asked what the difference between a slave and free person is. “A slave,” he wrote, “thinks only of himself. A free person has the ability to think of others.”

Our goal is to be sensitive to society as a whole; to be free is to be helpful and considerate of others. In this context, the coronavirus has caused everyone, and especially the people of Israel, to show sensitivity to the elderly and weaker population. All of us are self-isolating in our homes not just because we are afraid of being infected, but mainly because being outside endangers others. There is incredible consideration and regard for the elderly and weaker population and this is one of the signs of our being free.

During the seder there are points that remind us that freedom is paramount. We are also encouraged to investigate what it means to be free and where in the Haggadah that message speaks to us, such as Ha Lahma Anya (“This is the bread of our affliction”) and Mah Nishtana (“What is different about this night?”) At the most basic level, the Mishna explains that questions should be asked. And why does any person ask a question? To get answers, of course. 

In this time of quarantine and self-isolation, we recall that the Talmud pointedly states that even if one is alone, he or she should ask themselves questions. Our sages wanted to teach us that one of freedom’s central themes is not being afraid to ask. This requires the faith to both ask the question and then be receptive to an answer that one may not expect...or want. It should be juxtaposed to slavery, in that slaves do not ask questions.

By asking questions it shows that an individual is open to advancement, whereas, a slave is by definition, locked, emotionally at least, in place. It is essential - especially in these unusual times when we are constrained in our ability to move beyond our own property - that we maintain the potential to change and to be free. Each of us has the power to change, despite the fact that this can be a painful and difficult process. A useful question to ask ourselves is, “How can we elevate ourselves this year to a higher level?”

This Passover we are given an unusual opportunity: We are commanded to remember the Exodus as though we had participated in it, which can sometimes be a hard point to grasp. We are also taught that it is important for Jews to understand that we were once slaves. We need to know what evil regimes have done to us and that there is a fine line between order and chaos - and we could be so targeted again. If in 2020, with the state of the world as it currently is, if we cannot be sensitive to people who may be trapped, then we may never understand the true meaning of slavery and the Jewish experience. 

There is a final truth that Passover also highlights; the power of one person to change the world.

 As the epidemic began with one person and spread to the entire world, so the good we do has an effect on the entire world. It shows that individuals have tremendous influence. It can be used for good or it can be used for bad, but every person, made in the image of God and endowed with a specific task, has that ability. We rarely get to see the direct results of our actions, but a general rule that we might follow is that attempting to use our gifts for good is of much greater benefit to all humanity.

Rabbi Rimon is the Rabbinic Head of the Jerusalem College of Technology and the head of its Batei Midrash.