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“Plague #5: A Pandemic,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

December 31, 2021 / 27 Tevet 5782

Welcome to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we move toward Shabbat.

Plague Number Five: a pandemic.

Situated between swarms of harmful insects and fine dust thrown in the air to land on people and beast as inflamed boils, Moses described to Pharaoh what would ensue regarding freeing the enslaved Israelites:

כִּ֛י אִם־מָאֵ֥ן אַתָּ֖ה לְשַׁלֵּ֑חַ וְעוֹדְךָ֖ מַחֲזִ֥יק בָּֽם׃

For if you refuse to let them go, and continue to hold them,

הִנֵּ֨ה יַד־יְהֹוָ֜ה הוֹיָ֗ה בְּמִקְנְךָ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּשָּׂדֶ֔ה בַּסּוּסִ֤ים בַּֽחֲמֹרִים֙ בַּגְּמַלִּ֔ים בַּבָּקָ֖ר וּבַצֹּ֑אן דֶּ֖בֶר כָּבֵ֥ד מְאֹֽד׃

then the hand of the ETERNAL will strike your livestock in the fields—the horses, the asses, the camels, the cattle, and the sheep—with a very severe pestilence…

וַיָּ֥שֶׂם יְהֹוָ֖ה מוֹעֵ֣ד לֵאמֹ֑ר מָחָ֗ר יַעֲשֶׂ֧ה יְהֹוָ֛ה הַדָּבָ֥ר הַזֶּ֖ה בָּאָֽרֶץ׃

The ETERNAL has fixed the time: tomorrow the ETERNAL will do this thing in the land.’”

(Exodus 9: 2-3,5)

Dever is the Hebrew word used.  It means a pestilence or a plague, a pervasive affliction upon the cattle. In the context of Moses’ appeal to Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, this pandemic appeared at a fixed time and brought tragedy to the full range of livestock of the Egyptians though none of the Israelites animals were affected.

We are in that moment in this portion of plagues that affects every aspect of life. It may feel like it is happening in our own time as well. We have become too well acquainted with the dever of Covid, a pervasive affliction upon our lives whether we have had it or not.

For some, this time has been inconvenient and perhaps provided unforeseen opportunities.

For others, life has immeasurably changed and continues to do so like a broken record that won’t stop the skipping sound.  Whatever our situation, we are storm tossed, worn ragged by the unpredictable surges and variants.

We want to be delivered, to have someone like Moses appeal on our behalf to be released. Who will that be?

It is all of us  and each of us.

This portion is not just about the plagues, Pharaoh’s intransience, or even the ill effects of the plagues.  This section of the Torah pleads for freedom for the Israelites from slavery and degradation.

It was Victor Frankl who in the midst of heavy toil and travail in the concentration camps saw how the power of freedom brought inspiration in a dark time.  His words continue to speak to us.

The experiences of camp life show that one does have a choice of action.  There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. We can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic stress.  We who lived in concentration camps can remember the people who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.  They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a person but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstances, to choose one’s own way.  (Man’s Search for Meaning)

It is all of us and each of us who can choose redemptive behaviors and attitudes. But we can’t do it alone. Let’s hold on to those who are suffering, who are struggling, who are stretching themselves beyond the limits of their capacity to handle the challenges.  Let’s recognize that we aren’t meant to be in constant solitude.

We may not be able to make the harsh realities disappear, but surely we can lighten the burden in the presence of one another.  We remain interconnected as part of Temple Israel of Boston as we continue to gather in mixed presence, online and onsite through Shabbat and beyond.  And please let us know if you need some assistance or are dealing with Covid. Let’s not underestimate the power of what can happen when we are together.

Shabbat Shalom!

Connect with me here. I look forward to corresponding with you and to hearing your thoughts.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Elaine Zecher