In just over a week we will seclude ourselves during the Yom Tov of Pesach. We are already preparing your Jewish Link Pesach edition and hope it will be of some comfort during the long afternoons in isolation.
The fortunate ones among us will share the Seder table with close family members; those who habitually share our homes, with whom we have been cloistered for the last several weeks. Others will be alone with a spouse or other family member as per the directive of our rabbis and medical advisors. Many will only have the Haggadah for company. My mother is one of this group; she will be completely alone on Pesach for the first time in her life. She has asked to hear the Ma Nishtana before Yom Tov begins, by her youngest grandchildren via FaceTime.
And yet, we consider her privileged as well; there are others among us who are writhing in agony with a relative in the hospital, or even more terrible, those who will just be getting up from shiva to observe Pesach without their beloved ones.
The cold irony of our current plight is not lost on anyone; even a non-Jewish friend of mine from Boston asked me this week if marking the plagues of Egypt next week was different this year, since we’re in the middle of one. It might be ironic, but we take it only with a dawning grim realization. Somehow irony is simply not the right word.
This plague has, shockingly, brought some of the key lessons of Pesach home. We are able to appreciate and understand this most important chag in a new way this year. Now we know how the Mitzrim felt when they were plagued; they were plagued 10 horrible times, by a God they neither believed in nor understood.
Each day, as the phone rings and beeps with news of friends and relatives falling ill, we feel the impact of this plague. We wonder how we can daven better, or deeper, or more impactfully, to the God we know. Each day, as we fearfully boot up our computers to look at the news, we feel the already deep chasm of despair growing deeper and wonder what it is we have done to incur the wrath of God in this terrible way, and when he will save us with healing preparations.
Each day, as we cling to the schedules our brave school teachers and administrators have given our children, we realize the essential work they are doing to keep our children secure; shielding and protecting our children from a total lack of structure and a breakdown of our societal norms.
Each day, as my whole family rises at the crack of dawn to drive my husband to Columbia-New York Presbyterian Hospital, I realize, again, that he has chosen an essential profession; he can’t stay home and isolate with us, because he must keep the labs churning out results so patients can be treated as best as humanly possible. For better or for worse, we have to accept that this is our lot now. I wholeheartedly pray that he and all our health care providers will stay safe. They and all our first responders out there will forever remain heroes to me.
Each day, and even now, I know that several friends and relatives lie ill, some gravely in the ICU. These are good, kind people. Could we have realized, belatedly, the 10 terrible plagues on the Mitzrim might, just maybe, have affected good or just regular people as well? Singing about frogs and the other plagues so cheerfully might not feel so funny this year. Were those affected possibly mothers who loved their children? Fathers who loved their sons? Spouses who had spent their whole lives caring for one another? Families who were just going about their business?
No one disputes Mitzrim certainly had a wicked Pharoah, but they were plagued as a group, whether they were personally evil or not. They were plagued because they were Mitzrim and God heard the cries of the Jews and decided to take us out of their land.
While the plagues began, presumably as a result of the Mitzrim enthusiastically taking on their roles as oppressors and casting Jewish male children in the Nile, there is a midrash that says that the firstborn were killed because they had prevailed upon Pharoah to remove the Jews lest they be killed, and when Pharoah demanded such protesters be taken away, each firstborn son took out a sword and killed his father, thus incurring further divine wrath (Midrash Tehillim 136:6). However, the Ibn Ezra says that the killing of the firstborn was the main objective of the Exodus, foretold to Avram in Genesis 15:12-14 (Ibn Ezra on Psalms 135:8). Rashi even makes a mention of God-fearing Mitzrim (Shemot 14:7), but it’s a mixed message because they still gave their horses to the “war effort.” We also know there were Mitzrim who survived the plagues. Bat Pharoah for example, for her work in protecting the Jews, and others who defied orders and joined the Jews as they left Egypt.
But now we know what a plague is, even if we don’t know God’s ultimate objective. We know what divine wrath looks like.
Today, God has plagued all of humanity. Jews are being plagued as much as any other group. There is no one unaffected.
All we have left is our belief in a merciful God, a God that hears prayer, a God that will not forsake us. The Gemara teaches that God prays as well. Rabbi Allen Schwartz reminded me that this is found in Brachot 7a, derived from Yeshayahu (56:7), which refers to God’s house of prayer rather than our house of prayer. The Gemara asks what God prays in His own house of prayer, and records the following. “May it be My will that my mercies shall overcome my anger and that my mercies overcome all my other characteristics so that I may comport myself with my children in mercy and deal with them magnanimously and leniently.”
May it be God’s will that He pray for us now and have mercy on all of His children.
By Elizabeth Kratz