It is almost Passover in the State of Israel and yet, our world is plagued by another deadly pandemic. Every day, people are dying across the world from coronavirus. In Italy and some areas of the US, there are so many people dying that they are cremating the bodies. In Iran, there are mass graves. Our world as we knew it has collapsed, as one third of the global population lives under a coronavirus lockdown. Yet, it is precisely at a time like this that we should look back at our history and try to learn from what happened in the past. For as the Turkish saying goes, “Those who don’t know their history cannot predict their future.”
It is true that the 10 plagues of Ancient Egypt were very different in nature from the coronavirus pandemic. For starters, the 10 plagues only targeted one nation, the ancient Egyptians, who enslaved and massacred the Jewish people of antiquity. As the Nile River turned into blood and the Egyptian people were infested with frogs, lice, flies, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness, the Jewish areas did not suffer anything. Furthermore, as the Angel of Death smote the first born of every Egyptian, regardless of whether he was pharaoh or a mere slave, the Jewish people stayed safely quarantined in their homes with lamb’s blood marked clearly on their door, thus allowing that plague to pass them over.
In contrast, with this coronavirus pandemic, the entire world has been struck. The pandemic does not appear to differentiate between good and bad people, nor between nations within the free world and authoritarian regimes, where tyranny reigns. It does not differentiate between Haredi Israelis in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, who proclaim to follow every letter of the Torah and secular Israelis in Tel Aviv, who prefer to visit the beaches than the synagogues. Yet nevertheless, there are many parallels between the plague of darkness and the social distancing that this pandemic is forcing us all to do.
In the eyes of pharaoh, the plague of darkness was one of the worst plagues. While the other plagues lasted for one week and were followed by three weeks of warnings, Pharaoh so could not bear the plague of darkness that after three days into that plague, he was willing to let every Israelite leave Egypt, so long as they left their herds and flocks behind. This makes one ponder, what was so horrible about the plague of darkness? The answer to this question can be found in Exodus 10:23, which relates that the darkness was so thick that people could not get up and see one another. In other words, they could not socialize with each other.
As Rabbanit Devora Ushpizai explained, “Man, as we know, is a social creature and cannot live without society. Not only for receiving physical assistance when sick, or weak, or poor, and not only in order to share our joys or sorrows, but even simply to converse, study, exchange views, and in short to exist. The principle ‘it is not good for man to be alone’ (Gen. 2:18) holds not only with regard to couples, but also for every human being as a social creature. In the normal way of things, a person cannot live alone on an isolated island. One of the more severe punishments today is putting a person in solitary confinement, in isolation.” In fact, in the Torah, ostracism is one of the worst punishments that you can give a person. Indeed, being socially isolated in a thick darkness was a worse punishment in the eyes of pharaoh than frogs, lice, locusts, boils, hail and having wild beasts roam the land.
Similarly, today, it is the social distancing and living in isolation under lockdown that is destroying people’s mental health more than anything else associated with the coronavirus pandemic. People can stomach economic losses. People can recover from the loss of loved ones, even if it breaks the heart. This is especially so if the lost loved person is elderly. However, living in isolation for a prolonged period can potentially cause irreversible psychological damage. According to a review of the psychological effects of quarantines, published in Lancet, a British medical journal, some studies suggest that the impact of quarantines can be so severe as to result in a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.
As the Economist reported, “If lockdowns stretch on for months, old people will suffer particularly acutely. Even before they were confined to their homes, they were more likely to feel lonely. Elderly women in Europe are more than twice as likely as men to live on their own. They rely on seeing family and friends to keep up their morale, or simply for a routine. Alfredo Rossi, an 80-year-old in Casalpusterlengo, one of the first areas of Italy to be put under lockdown in February, says that what upsets him most about the restrictions is being unable to see his grandchildren who live just 16km (ten miles) away in Piacenza across the River Po.” However, the report noted that lockdowns don’t only encourage loneliness but also increased violence within the family: “Domestic violence, already endemic everywhere, rises sharply when people are placed under the strains that come from confined living conditions and worries about their security, health and money, says Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the head of UN Women. Based on early estimates, she thinks that in some countries under lockdown, domestic violence could be up by about a third.”
Living in lockdown under social isolation goes against our natural human instincts and our entire way of life, thus prompting many people to mentally collapse. In fact, the closure of synagogues is so painful to some Haredim in Israel that they are willing to break the law, just so long as they can continue to pray and gather as a community. This is how much they cannot tolerate social distancing and living under lockdown. For them, being cut off from their communal prayers is worse than enduring any monitory fine.
However, it should be noted that religious Jews are not the only ones who are having issues psychologically adjusting to social distancing and living under lockdown. According to the World Hindu Struggle Committee, Tablighi, a Muslim missionary group, gathered in New Delhi and as a result, caused a massive spreading of coronavirus in India. In Bangladesh, massive prayer sessions were held against the coronavirus in complete violation of the principles of social distancing as well. Furthermore, the Guardian reported that many Christian leaders in America have also held large church gatherings despite the coronavirus. President Trump did not help put that trend to an end when he called for the churches to be “packed on Easter.”
Yet as much as it is psychological torture for us to do so, the Passover story teaches us also what we must do in order to spare ourselves from this pandemic. Just as the ancient Israelis were able to escape the plague of the First Born by staying at home, also today we are told that we can outwit this pandemic by remaining within our homes. In fact, Jewish law mandates, “When there is an epidemic in the town, stay inside your home.” Jewish law also mandates handwashing, a quick burial of the dead and ritual purity practices, which improve general hygiene and thus helped the Jewish people whenever there was an epidemic in the past. As we celebrate Passover, it is prudent for us to do what our ancestors did in order to preserve our lives, so that we can persevere and thrive once this pandemic is behind us.