Responsibility in a time of pandemic
The Liberal Jewish Synagogue, London: April 2020

Ma Nishtanah Ha Pesach HaZeh Micol HaP’sachim! How different this Pesach is from all other Passovers!

On one thing we can be agreed: we are living in an extraordinary and challenging moment and each one of us faces one or more difficulties: our own mortality and the possible death of a loved one, illness and under or unemployment, loneliness and isolation, changed patterns of work and ways of communication – new routines for every one of us.

At both a macro and a more intimate level the world seems to have changed rather dramatically.  It goes without saying, but let it be repeated: this coronavirus is a deadly medical emergency which will sadly takes the lives of some, earlier than might have been the natural course, and of others - clearly much too early.  

Liberal Judaism, of course, emerged from the Age of Enlightenment which takes science and the rational seriously and, whilst the scientific community is not always agreed, our rabbis and our national movement support the Government in its efforts to overcome the impact of this virus by ‘listening to the science’.  Accompanied by our overwhelming affirmation of the Jewish principle of pikuach nefesh: the saving of human life, we have closed our synagogue buildings and, with real regret, even restricted aspects of our funeral services.

We have done so because we have accepted that ‘physical’ – a term I prefer to ‘social’ – physical distancing is probably the best way of preventing the further spread of the virus and of ensuring that the heroic staff of our National Health Service is not overwhelmed.  What a moment it was when during our second seder when we paused at a couple of minutes to eight o’clock so we would have the opportunity to join the ‘Clap for the NHS’.   Interestingly the Exodus story really began with the civil resistance of two midwives, Shifrah and Puah, unacknowledged heroines of the Book of Exodus (1: 15-20), and it is to today’s heroines and heroes, the medical and non-medical staff of the NHS, that thanks are due.

For many of us physical distancing has been the greatest individual challenge in so many ways.  Bereaved relatives have been prevented from a last goodbye; individuals have found themselves alone; grandparents can only meet their grandchildren on zoom; and the instinctive, human touch of comfort is temporarily suspended.

In the face of such circumstances, Liberal Judaism Rabbis and constituent communities have typically reacted with ingenuity and concern.  We have together created community virtually, and whether it was services, meditation, lectures, classes, bridge or scrabble that one wanted from one’s shul - it has been achieved by Zoom or Google hangouts or Teams or other forms of social media – a miracle in itself for somebody like me with a Luddite tendency.  Rabbis have been rewarded with increased attendances and my own five grandchildren now share a weekly Zoom havdalah with us, having done the same for kabbalat shabbat only 24 hours previously.

Yet the seder would surely be a challenge too far!  As Exodus 12:3 and 4 remind us:

Speak to the whole community of Israel and say that on the tenth of this month each of them shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household.  But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with his neighbour who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons: you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household shall eat.

It may well have been that in Temple times each family was to bring its own sacrificial lamb – the Pesach - but these verses enabled its successor, the seder, like so much of Judaism, to become an opportunity for one family to join with another and create a community.  As the 19th century commentator, Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) observed: 

More than the poor needed the rich, the rich needed the poor.  Let those whose households are too small to absorb all the blessings God has given them seek out their neighbour and share the bounty with them.  

I do not know about you but, whilst 30 of my family members in 13 households in England, Israel and Japan was impressive, a communal seder on the second night with more than 200 households in England, Israel, Palestine, Greece, South Africa, New Zealand and Spain was even more remarkable.

Yet these are frivolities and it behoves us to examine whether Pesach during the virus has anything to teach us.  We think for a moment of the Prime Minster, Boris Johnson who, we understand, is now making a slow recovery and we wish him well.  His being stricken, it has been suggested, demonstrates that the coronavirus is a ‘great leveller’ and, at its simplest it is – if we mean by that that the virus is not discriminatory in terms of whom it wishes to infect.  Yet upon whom the virus has the greatest impact and more particularly how the current restrictions are being felt is an opportunity to remind us that an unequal society breeds unequal consequences every day - but much more so when tragedy strikes. Those of us with ample gardens are arguably better able to ‘Stay at Home’ than a family cramped in a small flat on the 13th floor of a tower block. For two carers life is easier than for the single parent having to juggle home-schooling with working from home, and those who might be described as ‘the just managing’ are bearing the burden of increased costs with many likely to be the key workers risking their health to deliver goods, staff supermarkets, drive the buses and keep our essential infrastructure going.

 Perhaps the phrase ‘We are all in this together’ will become not merely a slogan but a principle of social policy in the future.  

What applies to the United Kingdom is relevant globally too. Imagine the consequences of societies with even less adequate health facilities if the virus strikes harder in Africa, for example, rather than in the relative fortunate countries of Europe, China, South Korea and the United States.  I was rather drawn to the comment of the French Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), who comments about the blessing after food:

To be able to eat and drink is a possibility as extraordinary, as miraculous, as the crossing of the Re{e}d Sea.  We do not recognise the miracle this represents because we live in a world which, for the moment, has plenty of everything, and because our memory is short.  Yet those who live in less fortunate countries understand that to be able to satisfy one’s hunger is the marvel of miracles…the route which takes bread from the earth in which it grows to the mouth which eats it is one of the most perilous.  It is to cross the Re{e}d Sea…  

The presence of this hidden virus should remind us of the miracle of health, of breath, of life.

The Pesach narrative, of course, begins with Moses’ call at the burning bush and his lack of confidence in his own leadership, proceeds with the back and forth of Pharaoh and the resultant plagues, and  on to what Exodus 12:42 describes as ‘a night of vigil for the Eternal One to bring them out of the land of Egypt; that same night is the Eternal’s, one of vigil for all the children of Israel throughout the ages’.  

When I was a child I often wondered about the exact detail of the Exodus.  The death of the first born is to happen at about midnight (Exodus 11: 4) when presumably the maximum number of Egyptians will be at home.  The ordinary Egyptians will perceive their trauma and they, rather than Pharaoh, will, by instructing Moses, give permission for the Israelites to leave (Exodus 11:8).  The Israelites are informed that at night death will come but their houses, marked with blood, will be exempt (Exodus 12:7 and 12).  I wondered what the Israelites did that night and why it was to be a night of vigil?  Were they fearful that if they went to sleep the Angel of Death might make a mistake?  Were they awake with expectant readiness for a long journey into the unknown? Or were they, as hinted at in Moses’ reluctance at the burning bush, cynical - perhaps through the harshness of slavery – that the liberation would ever happen.

The lesson of the Pesach narrative – and indeed of Jewish history - is one of faith and opportunity.  The Israelites were freed from the bondage of slavery and, with some distractions on the way (to say the least), reach the Promised Land and were able to forge their own future in freedom.  This virus, which has afflicted us and our world, will, like the Egyptians, be conquered – not by plagues but by science and our own behaviour.

When the Israelites left Egypt they embarked on a desert journey but they emerged as a people with a religious constitution (the Ten Commandments) and a purpose: to live by that constitution in a land which flowed –and presumably could continue to flow - with milk and honey.  As they settled in the land and made it prosperous the Hebrew prophets endowed them with an international task -  to be, as the Second Isaiah (49:6) put it, ‘a light to the nations’.

We too shall emerge from this restrictive and dangerous situation and our responsibility will remain what it has always been, in the words of Rabbi Dr Israel Mattuck, in a sermon titled ‘Judaism and the Future’ which he preached at the LJS on 5 October 1945:

 {Judaism must be}… more than a tradition which some Jews like to maintain for their satisfaction; it must be as message to the world’.  

It is towards our response to this virus, towards our message to the world that Liberal Jews and Liberal Judaism must now turn.