Main Idea: What we need for our salvation is right in front of our eyes, we need to act and adapt, that’s how we survived many other plagues.
Our services were vastly different this year, I know, from whatever you experienced last year. I know and I was not even here. Since I began as the rabbi of Adath Israel, services have been quite different for daily minyan and Shabbat – whether on zoom and in-person. And how could it be any other way? Only fools don’t adapt when there is a plague.
The name COVID just gives us a shield to what this really is – a plague.
But what you may know is that our people survived many plagues in the past. This is in part because of our laws and customs, and in part because they knew to adapt. Our kashrut laws, for instance, make it harder to live with mice and other critters in a kitchen; our custom of having a bath in honor of Shabbat and washing hands before eating were seen with askance by many Europeans.
In Portugal, I can assure you, doctors in the 16th century thought that more than two baths a year was actually harmful to your health. Imagine how crazy they thought Jews were. When the Portuguese met Brazilian natives, who took many dips a day in the rivers, they couldn’t wrap their heads around it!
And adaptation is the hallmark of our people, as is survival to plagues. We know that because of diaries or memoirs that some left behind. The manuscript of one of those was published in 1918, the year of yet another plague, and it describes what it looks like a form of mumps in Bohemia, particularly in Prague, where you might know Jews lived in the ghetto of Prague. The plague spoken in the diary happened in 1680, or 5440 in the Jewish calendar.
This morning I will tell you that story, and will show to you how it connects to our RH Torah reading – because we know everything connects. Our sages say “hafoch bah, hafoch ba, shekulei bah” – meaning, search Torah, search Torah, because everything is in Torah – by which they mean guidance for everything is in Torah.
Our hero, the person who wrote this memoir, remains unnamed despite giving a wealth of information about his family. By the time of the plague he is a boy of 11 years old. He does not live in Prague, he lives in Lichenstadt with his father and the father’s second wife. The first thing he tells us is that, when the plague surges in Prague, several people flee the city to the country, to Lichenstadt. We have seen in our own times people fleeing the big cities to the country, and being amazed at how much more money can buy if you’re not paying city prices.
A friend of mine did just that, in April, and is still amazed that her one bedroom apartment in New York means a whole house in the outskirts of Philadelphia.
But then the writer gets the plague. The month is Tammuz, and this is the middle of the summer. His fever is very high and his neck swells on the right side. He, like many at that time, almost dies. To compound the problem, his father is friendly with the Count, who protects the Jews, as was then common. The Count has built a two-room house in the middle of the forest about a mile away from the castle and if anyone gets sick in the castle they’re sent there immediately. The Count stops leaving the castle, our author says, and only a few people are allowed come in, those who the Count trusts are not sick and have no sickness in their houses.
Among these few is the author’s father, because according to the author his father was “very clever and the Count liked to talk to him, so he stayed most of the day in the castle.” The father is in no position of saying to the Count he can’t go: not going is tantamount as endangering the Jewish population.
Notice how they already knew, in the 17th century, that if a plague breaks out you’re supposed to stay indoors and keep minimal contact with the outside.
We call that quarantine.
I want to remind you that there was not even the concept of vaccines or disinfectants. Soaps and vinegar were around as cleaning products, but detergents and the first disinfectants were only invented in the 19th century. The first vaccine was tested in a 13-year old child in 1798. But our unnamed hero is far away from all that. And he is very sick.
Everyone in the house is scared, and no one wants to take care of him. His own mother died years before in childbirth, another common occurrence, when our hero was just four. Now the Count had told the father that, should anyone get sick in the house, the entire family should be banned to the house in the woods, and should the father hide anything from the Count, they Count would permit the gentiles to steal all his possessions and burn the house down with everyone in it.
Yes, the Count does not come across as a very nice person. And he is powerful. And when the father comes home, and realizes that the plague is there, he is doubly afraid. Because carrying out the orders of the count also means putting his own family in danger, everyone knows of thieves and murderers that live in the woods.
According to the author, where they to see a Jewish family without the protection of the Count, that family would be killed and all the possessions stolen.
In that sense, historically, we Jews have our own collective traumas in relation to plagues, and it is important for us to know and acknowledge that. We suffered the effects of the plague with the general population, but then, suffered also because of antisemitism – people blaming the plague on Jews or using the opportunity to seize property. The fears of the father reflect that double wammy, to use a technical term.
The solution that the family arrives to is to hide the hero in a room, and to have the grandfather take care of him. We call that hospital stay, but they didn’t have hospitals as we know them back then.
Our hero eventually recovers, but the plague spreads, according to him, because people get tired of keeping away from each other.
We call that Corona fatigue.
On Tishrei 5441, which is the month of the High Holidays, everyone thinks the plague stopped. There are no more deaths. But the plague returns with a vengeance in the next two months, which is by then winter, and the ground is hard as marble and the snowfall is great. In some villages around the castle, our hero tells us, almost all the men died and only a few women are left. And they have no way of burying the bodies, so they hide them under the snow.
We have seen that this year, too, as the number of deaths in big cities overwhelmed the burial services.
In the case of Bohemia in the seventeenth century they also had no backhoes or trucks of any sort.
The plague, according to our hero, finally ends with the end of the month of Kislev, which is the month of Chanukah. There is no way for us to know how many people died in that particular plague, but last week the numbers in America were the equivalent of 65 September 11th attacks. Both plagues were devastating.
Our hero then decides to change his ways and to dedicate himself to the study of Torah, which his father has not been diligent about. At age 11 our hero does not know how to read or write Hebrew. And as if to prove how much this experience changed him, the original is written in Hebrew. You can find the entire text, both the Hebrew original and a translation in the archives of the Jewish Quarterly Review, available online.
In part I wanted to tell you this story because it is so similar to our experience, and even though having to deal with a plague feels new to us, in our collective memory we survived things like this, in times that were less favorable. Nowadays we have science, we understand and know so much more than they did. We know what precautions to take, and how to keep social distance. In that sense, what we need for our salvation is in front of our very eyes. We just need to act on it.
In our reading this morning, we have one of the saddest moments of Torah, in my opinion. That is the scene of the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham, despite his own feelings, listens both to Sarah and to God and sends them away with a wineskin of water and some bread. After what could be a few days, the water is gone and obviously the bread was eaten. They have nothing.
The mother, Hagar, can’t carry Ishmael anymore. By all accounts, Ishmael now is a teenager, even though he is seen as a boy by his mom: yeled. She says “let me not see the death of the boy.”
And what parent hasn’t looked at their grownup son or daughter, and still treated them like the child they used to be? Hagar sets down Ishmael under a bush, in the little shade available, and sits away, an arrow’s throw. If you look in the traditional commentaries, they mostly criticize Hagar, branding her a “bad mother”.
But rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, with whom I had the pleasure to learn this piece recently, sees Hagar in a different light: she is overwhelmed by the prospect of losing her only child. Unable to act. Paralyzed by the mere idea. And how many of us wouldn’t feel the same on those circumstances?
She then raises her voice and screams out. And that, too, we’ve seen in our times. Just remember the images of raw grief of parents who lost children in the past eight years due to gun violence. All parents know that fear since Sandy Hook, but no one was more public in that grief than Richard Martinez, whose only son was killed in a shooting rampage in 2014. He is the one behind #NotOneMore. His face is forever etched in my mind, as he struggles to speak and cry out coherent sentences asking for change.
All American parents are afraid of becoming another one of those parents, because despite the hashtag there have been many more. These parents, we know, lose a piece of their lives, a part of their hearts and all of their future. And Hagar feels that fear so deeply that she is overwhelmed to the point of inaction.
It is then that the angel comes up to her, and God opens her eyes to see what is already there – the well. She just needs to act on it.
The text does not say – God created the well. God made a well appear. No, the well is already there, she just needed to open her eyes. All she needed for their salvation was already there. The midrash, when looking at Hagar’s story, affirms: every person is under the assumption of being blind until the Holy One of Blessing opens their eyes.
Tomorrow will be the time of Abraham to almost see the death of his own child, in a text that many find very problematic and many see no problem at all.
Wherever is your position, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described his experience of a child who heard the Akeda for the first time, in his book “Vietnam: Crisis of Conscience:”
Isaac was on the way to Mount Moriah with his father; then he lay on the altar, bound, waiting to be sacrificed. My heart began to beat even faster; it actually sobbed with pity for Isaac. Behold, Abraham now lifted the knife. And now my heart froze within me with fright. Suddenly, the voice of the angel was heard: “Abraham, lay not thine hand upon the lad, for now I know that thou fearest God.” And here I broke out in tears and wept aloud. “Why are you crying?” asked the Rabbi. “You know that Isaac was not killed.” And I said to him, still weeping, “But, Rabbi, suppose the angel had come a second too late?” The Rabbi comforted me and calmed me by telling me that an angel cannot come late.
Heschel the writer, a grown up activist, then concludes the piece: An angel cannot come late, but man, made of flesh and blood, may be.
We may have what we need in front of our eyes and not use it. We may refuse to change. We may give into grief and despair and not act.
But for Heschel, “The greatest heresy is despair, despair of people’s power for goodness, human’s power for love.” Because goodness and love are the light we carry within.
Robert Louis Stevenson, best known for “Treasure Island”, “Kidnapped,” and “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” has a beautiful personal essay, “The Lantern Bearers.” In it he talks about a game he played in childhood, more or less at this time of the year, for the night begins earlier. The boys of the fishing village would carry inside their coats a lantern, which they keep lit, but not show the light at all. From the outside, they look like any other person, walking about the evening, but when they meet each other, they raise the edge of the coat.
The essay goes on to trying to understand why the game was so significant. But just think about the symbol: the light you need is inside you. “For as dark as the pathway may seem to the observer,” writes Stevenson, you know you have a lantern in you. All you need to do is to raise the edge of the coat. Our power for goodness, our power for love, our light are just under our coats.
In the story of the pandemic of Bohemia, our unnamed hero also has his salvation within his household: his grandfather takes care of him, and both survive the plague. And the grandfather, as unlearned as he might have been, passed to the boy the idea that his survival was not happenstance, not a coincidence, but a gift, an opportunity – and the boy acts on his experience, and sure he does not become a scholar, but becomes a much more learned Jew than he would ever be. He sees and acts.
And our adaptations of the service, too, are happening because this is a different time. We knew what we need to do, and we are doing it.
We have to open our eyes and see that all we need is already there: ways of shortening the service because of shaa’at hadkchak, pressing circumstances. The wearing masks and humming. The distance keeping. The far away hugs. The zoom services. All we need – including zoom – for our salvation is right here. We just need to open our eyes and act on it.
And maybe this year we will finally begin the ever postponed building of a better world and a better future for all.