Posted on March 15, 2021 by Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck
Pesach: A Paradigm for Liberation from the Pandemic
It is tempting to think of the Exodus from Egypt as a giant leap from slavery to freedom. The final plagues unfold, breaking Pharaoh’s will to resist. He relents and lets the Israelites depart. Our people pack their bags, grab the dough that hasn’t risen, and leave. We cross the sea, dance with Miriam, bake our matzah and — voila! — we are free. The thing is, it didn’t happen that way.
The Exodus was actually an arduous process that unfolded in stages. As Michael Walzer reminds us in his book Exodus and Revolution, it may have begun with a miraculous redemption, but it was no cake walk from there. First, Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his army to pursue us. Then we found ourselves trapped between his forces and the sea. Miraculously, we make it through, only to find ourselves in the harsh environment of the wilderness, with no magic carpet to whisk us to the Promised Land.
“Liberation…” writes Walzer, “is the hard and continuous work of men and women…the way to the [promised] land is through the wilderness. [And] there is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.”
Eventually, we made it. We reached the Promised Land. But it was a 40-year slog through the desert. And even when we arrived, we faced new challenges and struggles. To be sure, there were times of triumph and exultation along the way, and, ultimately, we achieved our goal and more. But it wasn’t easy, and it didn’t happen overnight.
We are marking the anniversary of our enslavement to COVID-19. For all of us, in differing ways, it feels as if we have been through a plague. For some it may feel like we’ve lived through all 10 of the Plagues of Egypt, and with good reason. Our nerves are frayed from all the worry, our spirits are battered from the myriad losses of life and livelihood. Who knows just how deep are the wounds from which we will have to heal? Only time will tell.
No wonder, then, that so many feel an almost overwhelming impulse to break free — to throw off our masks and all the other constraints and return to normal. It is so tempting to run to the light that we see at the end of the tunnel. It is so alluring that for some it is irresistible. It is also dangerous, and threatens to delay the day that we can truly be free from this pandemic.
The arrival of multiple vaccines that are safe and effective is truly a moment of triumph. It is nothing short of miraculous to have made such great scientific breakthroughs in so short a time, and we should rejoice in this achievement. Their delivery is the beginning of our deliverance. It is the beginning, but not the end.
Within just a few months of leaving Egypt our people arrived at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. Looking back, that was a turning point in our history. But it was not at the time. At the time, it was a moment that was missed. As Moses was receiving the Commandments, the people allowed their trauma and anxiety to get the better of them, building and worshipping a golden calf. It didn’t need to happen. Not then, and not now.
For us today, the passage from COVID-19 can be a Sinai moment. So much has been revealed by this experience. If we are mindful and open to change, the future can be brighter for what we have learned. We can seize the opportunity to right historic wrongs and injustices that have been laid bare by the pandemic. If we do, we can find some gain from the horrific losses we have incurred.
As we begin our countdown to Pesach and anticipate the arrival of our festival of freedom, we can also begin to count the days until our liberation from COVID-19. Let us use this time to prepare patiently. Let us not rush and allow our anxieties to cloud our judgment. Let us make sure that when we cross the sea, we leave no one behind, so that the song we sing when we arrive on the other side can be one of unbridled joy.
Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck
Originally published in the March-April 2021 issue of the Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives.