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Darkness and Dawn

Parashat Bo 5782/January 8, 2022

This post is a continuation of “Wood, Fire and Water” and “Blood in the Water,” posted in the previous two weeks.

The beginning of Parashat Bo feels like the kind of long slide into the abyss I wrote about two weeks ago.

With the plague of fiery hailstones just ended, God sends the locusts.  “They shall cover the surface of the land, so that no one will be able to see the land. They shall devour the surviving remnant that was left to you after the hail,” Moshe and Aharon warn Pharaoh (Shmot 10:5). 

In the months after the October 27th, 2018, terror attack in Pittsburgh, I had one consistent source of solace, the site of the last hopeful thing that happened to me immediately before the attack: the newborn nursery, where scarcely an hour before the shooting started I made my rounds with my tiniest, most precious patients.  I was often late to work those months, lingering extra minutes in each room, snuggling every baby for no reason other than to bask in the calm of a sleeping newborn.  I would leave the house for rounds some days and tell my wife I was going to therapy.

Seventeen months later, when the pandemic began, “the surviving remnant that was left to me” after the shooting was devoured.  Rounds became a nerve-wracking experience.  With my outpatient practice converted swiftly and almost completely to telehealth, the hospital was now the only place I ever encountered human beings in groups.  I avoided elevators, closed spaces where we assumed the virus could be most easily transmitted, in a hospital designed to actively discourage the use of stairs.  Faithfully clad in my green N-95 mask, I became an obligate mouth-breather because while the mask allows oxygen to flow just fine, it only stays sealed if it is pinched tight enough to block my nose. 

As a result, I huffed and puffed my way down long corridors and up ancient spiral staircases at top speed, anxious to quit the place as fast as possible.  My actual visits required the additional use of a face shield, gloves, and copious amounts of Clorox wipes.  I liberally borrowed patient gowns to cover my street clothes; there were no fluid resistant gowns for the pediatricians, even though we probably ought to have them for newborn rounds all the time as those little ones are liable to go off at any minute.  Whatever therapeutic effect newborn rounds had once had for me evaporated.  The locusts ate it.

From that perspective, the next plague, darkness, follows almost seamlessly.  The plague begins, in Shmot 10:21, with the words, vayamesh hoshekh, which is widely translated into English as “darkness which can be felt.”  It was a darkness so thick that it was not just an absence of light, but a positive presence unto itself, so heavy that “for three days no one could get up from where he was (Shmot 10:23).  My new teacher Dan Smokler shared the description from the Torah Temimah that, “The verse comes to teach that when an Egyptian stood he could not sit, and when he sat he could not stand because of the substance/thickness of the darkness.”  I think we all know how that feels now.  Even my mornings in the nursery, despite being far less fearful (or far more numb) than two years ago, start with me in bed feeling thick, weighted down, and immobilized.

Historian and author Kate Bowler has spent the years since being diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer at age 35 learning, writing, and podcasting about dealing with this feeling of sliding – about losing the thing you were holding on to, and eventually getting to a place where even moving took too much effort.  In her 2021 book No Cure for Being Human, Bowler concludes by narrating the experience of learning that most of the people in her clinical trial, the one that allowed her access to the immunotherapy that enabled her to still be alive to write that book, had died by early 2020.  Just as she was learning this, the pandemic struck. 

Bowler observes: “I had nothing to do but survive the feeling that some pain is for no reason at all.  It becomes clearer than ever that life is not a series of choices.  So often the experiences that define us are the ones we didn’t pick.  Cancer.  Betrayal.  Miscarriage.  Job Loss.  Mental Illness.  A novel coronavirus.” (No Cure for Being Human, p. 183)

Part of the power of the Exodus narrative is the element of the Hand of God directing events, of believing that there is a carefully laid plan hundreds of years long coming to fruition.  Part of the power of the Western narrative of history in our own time is the element of inexorable progress, moving toward a perfected society, a perfected humanity.  It’s hard for most people to square their own experiences with these narratives.  “This is the strange cruelty of suffering in America,” says Bowler, “its insistence that everything is still possible… I must accept the world as it is, or break against the truth of it: my life is made of paper walls.  And so is everyone else’s (p. 186).”

Never have I reached this point in the Torah reading cycle that tells of the moment of the Exodus and felt like I was identifying more with the Egyptians than the Israelites.  It’s telling that in the next parsha God will scold the Israelites for dancing and singing as the Egyptian soldiers drown in the Sea of Reeds, as if we are meant to empathize with their suffering, even as the text tells us they are “the bad guys.”  And perhaps, if I can see that darkness, understand that weight, comprehend what it was to have locusts devour the little bit leftover from the hail, then that is an answer to the baseless hatred I wrote about last week.  Indeed, some interpretations about the plagues is that they were lessons in empathy – for the Egyptians, to force them to feel what the Israelites had experienced on the descent into slavery.  It’s hard to be angry at someone whose life is made of paper walls when yours is, too. 

A year ago, I posted a blog titled, “It Ain’t Over…”, about historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s advice to allow ourselves to live in tension and not try to interpret the history we are living through while it is still happening.  In that piece I quoted from Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who had died only a couple months earlier.  This week I also want to end with Rabbi Sacks, speaking on the very subject of how to interpret a historical moment we’re in.

In his essay on Bo entitled, “The Far Horizon,” from his book Lessons in Leadership, Rabbi Sacks describes an exercise in which he asks people to share what they would say to a people on the verge of leaving Egypt.  Some reference the Promised Land, some adopt a tone like Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, and some cleave to Nelson Mandela’s theme of the “long walk to freedom.”  Moshe’s response, according to Rabbi Sacks, does none of these things, but rather focuses on the distant future, the “far horizon” of the essay’s title.  He identifies three times where Moshe invokes the education of the children, and interpreting the events of the Exodus for future generations, at the very moment that the event unfolds (Shmot 12:26-27, 13:8 and 13:14).

He leaves one out, and it is a telling omission: Shmot 10:2, the second line of this parsha, spoken right between the hail and the locusts.  God tells Moshe and Aharon that the next plagues will occur, “that you may recount in the hearing of your child and of your child’s child how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them.”  Rabbi Sacks, whose books include Not In God’s Name, a brilliant work dismantling the theology of vengeance and religious violence, was no triumphalist, and dancing on the graves of the Egyptians was not in his vocabulary.  Nor does the Haggadah quote this line in describing the four children, referring instead to Sacks’ three and a line from D’varim.

What will we tell our children years hence about this moment, about how we survived the weight of the darkness or the locusts consuming the little we had left after the hail – or for many of us, about losing our first-born children?  If we’ve learned nothing, we might continue telling our children about how it was all “the other guys’” fault, about how this policy or that failed and destroyed lives, or this person or that got what they had coming to them when they died. 

Or we might learn from Rabbi Sacks, who frequently says that the most important mitzvah in the Torah, repeated 36 times by his count, is “Do not wrong the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Mitzrayim.”  You, too, were stuck in that narrow place.  Your life also has paper walls.  When the darkness finally lifts, it is morning.  How do we know when the darkness has lifted?  According to the Jerusalem Talmud Berachot 1:2:4, day begins (and we are allowed to say the morning Shma) when we can recognize a casual acquaintance from four cubits away.  Total strangers, says Rav Hisda, we would not recognize, in daylight or darkness, even from up close, and a close friend we know even in the dark from far away.  But when the dawn is just beginning to break, we can begin to see those in between, who may have been at arms-length, estranged but not strangers, and recognize that they, too, have been suffering through what we have endured.  And you will tell your child on that day, “This is because of what all of us endured, together and yet apart from each other.  Give the guy a break.”

Blood in the Water

December 31, 2021/27 Tevet 5782, Parashat Vaera

Originally posted at https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/blood-in-the-water/

Early in the pandemic, we said and did a lot of things that made little sense.  Recommendations changed almost daily.  We gravely took specific precautions that turned out to be useless, like hanging plexiglass shields and buying stores out of toilet paper.  And we talked a lot about “silver linings,” like how glad we were to take a break from working in offices or wearing dress clothes.  Twenty-one months on, the recommendations still change faster than we can keep up with, precautions we thought we finally had figured out now turn out again to be minimally effective, and the only silver lining I see is in my hair.

According to my friend and teacher, Rabbi Danny Schiff, one of the nonsensical things a lot of involved Jews did then was to compare the COVID19 pandemic to one of the plagues visited upon Egypt.  In a Facebook post dated April 1, 2020, yet not intended as a joke, Rabbi Schiff implored his audience not to compare our present situation to the “Eleventh Plague” or to mention it at seder.  “This is the wrong parallel,” he wrote.  “Let’s remember: the Ten Plagues were delivered by God deliberately as a punishment for Pharoah’s obstinacy.  Does anybody seriously believe that God deliberately delivered this current pandemic as a punishment?  I don’t.  No thoughtful Jewish theology would support such an idea.”

He went on to suggest that the better comparison would be to the plague that killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students, which the rabbis in tractate Yevamot compared to diphtheria, a natural, infectious plague that caused loss and calamity which we still mourn in our own time during the period of the Omer.

Unfortunately, the parallel to the plague in Rabbi Akiva’s time runs deeper than the analogy between diphtheria and COVID.  In April 2020 we were only beginning to see the rifts that have opened in our society, and indeed in most countries, around every aspect of the pandemic: masks, lockdowns, vaccinations, treatments, and even whether the virus itself exists at all.  These rifts mirror fundamental, cultural-political rifts that predate the pandemic and that appear, unfortunately, to be about the only thing that is wholly immune to COVID19.

Yevamot explains the plague as follows: “They said by way of example that Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students in an area of land that stretched from Gevat to Antipatris in Judea, and they all died in one period of time, because they did not treat each other with respect.”  In other words, the plague was the result of baseless hatred between individuals.

SARS CoV-2 is not a Divine punishment for baseless hatred.  But we know that the virus is not the only plague circulating in 2021.  Secondary pandemics, and pre-existing ones, have been running in parallel to the coronavirus pandemic: drug overdoses and addiction: loneliness and other serious mental health crises; disruptions in our education system, our judicial system, and the other parts of our healthcare system; racial, gender, and economic inequality exacerbated by both the disease burden of the virus and its societal impacts.  And woven through all of these is the plague of political tribalism, which in most cases stakes a person to a fixed position on each of these other pandemics, a position from which they are prone to view anyone who disagrees with them as not only wrong, but evil.  And regarding these plagues, we are not blameless. 

These plagues invite a new, different comparison to the plagues of Egypt.  I’m not speaking of the theology of God punishing the Egyptian enslavers, but the symbolism of what happened to Egyptian society during the plagues, and how similar it is to what ails us now.

The plagues struck Egypt in the ways that hurt Egyptian society most, attacking the god-figures and the sustaining forces in Egyptian life – the animals, the crops, the Nile, and ultimately the first-born children on up to Pharaoh’s own son, the incumbent godhead of all Egypt.  They turned Egyptian society upside down, in one case literally turning day to night.  And here, in pandemic-era America, our gregarious society known for its abundance, its never-ending activity, and its show-must-go-on spectacles has become a place of empty streets, scarcity, cancellations and staffing shortages.  We barely recognize ourselves.

In the case of the river, water, the sustaining force of all life, in Egypt and everywhere on the planet, turned to blood.  In modern English, when we say there’s “blood in the water,” we mean it as a metaphor for “the sharks are circling.”  A fitting description of our time.  It doesn’t matter which side of the political divide you fall on; there are sharks circling, both ones that are angling to eat you, and ones you are hoping will eat the people you hate.

This is not water you can drink: “The fish in the Nile died. The Nile stank so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile; and there was blood throughout the land of Egypt.” (Shmot 7:21) 
In my last post I lamented how much I have begun to feel like the Burning Bush, perpetually on fire, and wondering how much longer I can burn, how much longer I can push through the pandemic life, before finally being charred beyond recognition.  I need water to drink to refresh me, to keep me from being consumed. 

Like everyone else in America, I fell into the pattern of believing that water with blood in it was just fine to drink, that righteous, or self-righteous anger, snark, vitriol, and acid wit was going to buoy me up.  I bought into the fiction that not only was the pandemic a punishment, but it was a punishment that someone else deserved, that someone else was causing.  I got angry, very angry, at people who wouldn’t mask, wouldn’t stay home despite Samuel L. Jackson reading them a vulgar bedtime story that instructed them to do so, wouldn’t get vaccinated, or insisted on telling me that I didn’t know anything about medicine.  It made things worse.

Drinking this “bloody water” turns everything upside down.  The hatred is so thorough that people turn themselves inside out in their criticism of the other side, espousing viewpoints they can’t possibly agree with:

  • People who once called the end-of-life provisions in the Affordable Care Act “death panels” and protested to keep Terry Schiavo on life support rallied behind a lieutenant governor who suggested it would be okay to sacrifice some grandparents’ lives to get the economy going again.
  • People who marched in the streets to remove the stigma and victim-blaming around HIV, drug addiction and mental illness broadcast their schadenfreude whenever someone prominent gets COVID after mocking the disease, publicly refusing vaccination, or touting disproven treatments.
  • People who steadfastly serve in the US military, support our troops, and welcome strict security measures at our borders, in the airports, and on our city streets to guard against terrorism and crime cry that the government is infringing on their freedom when it asks for individuals to wear masks, get vaccinated, or limit activity to protect thousands of vulnerable lives.
  • People who support universal, single-payor healthcare issue calls on social media for hospitals to refuse care to unvaccinated individuals with COVID19.
  • People who support reducing government regulation on just about everything because “regulation stifles innovation and slows down progress” won’t use highly effective, efficiently developed vaccines because they feel they were developed too fast without enough oversight and they don’t trust what’s in them – the same argument their opponents have made for years about chemicals that leach into the environment due to lack of regulation of their development or use.
  • People who support equity in education and are sensitive to issues of racial and economic inequalities in school resources supported sudden, prolonged closure of schools and a move to digital platforms while most disadvantaged students had no reliable way to access those platforms.
  • People who deny the existence of systemic racism and keep Confederate memorabilia are suddenly very concerned about the Tuskegee experiment and its relevance to vaccines.

People advocate for actions they normally despise, use language they would normally despise, champion ideas they normally ridicule and undermine ideals they normally cherish for the sake of winning this debate, as if it can be won.  The water gets bloodier, and the whole thing stinks like dead fish.

I’ve engaged in more than my share of this behavior myself, despite knowing better and even trying to write myself a different script in some of my previous posts.  It keeps happening, a plague no less contagious, no less persistent, than the pandemic virus itself.  Worse, it keeps mutating; every new issue becomes a new battleground, every point of policy a new cause for fighting.

So no, the SARS CoV-2 virus is not a Divine weapon of retribution.  But the other societal illnesses swirling around it are undoubtedly due to our inability to treat each other with respect, and we are trapped in a darkness where a person cannot recognize their fellow from mere inches away.  There is most certainly blood in the water.

More telling still is the fact that the plague of the bloody Nile is never officially declared over.  Moshe does not plunge his staff back into the blood and turn it back to water, nor does the text clearly state that it reverted on its own.  We learn only that after seven days of the first plague, the plague of frogs begins.  The river can sustain life again – but the kind of life that usually lives in a foul swamp.  Pittsburgh’s polluted rivers sustain life – but they are the type of mutant, heavy-metal-laden carp that don’t belong on the dinner table.  The hateful speech will not go away on its own, nor can it be forcibly contained.  Only a slow, steady trickle of clean, fresh water, a stream of goodwill and compassion, brought forth from the ground by a sustained effort, can dilute away that blood and filth.

Tradition holds that the groundwater in Egypt was spared the plague of blood.  In Shmot 7:24 we learn that, “all the Egyptians had to dig round about the Nile for drinking water, because they could not drink the water of the Nile.”  We need to dig deeper to find some clean, untainted water, and pour it out liberally for those around us.

Wood, Fire and Water

Parashat Shmot 5782, 20 Tevet/December 24, 2021

It was the smokiest backyard fire I have ever built.

We had an unseasonably warm, dry day in the middle of last week.  Through sheer force of will I caught up on work, cleaned up after the dog, and hauled out the fire pit one last time before winter.  We still have an enormous pile of cut firewood from the limb of our neighbors’ tree that crashed into our backyard on June 13th, sitting unused due to an excessive amount of rain, stress, and general exhaustion that has kept us from using it.

Unfortunately, the kindling, “dry leaves” that I had gathered in armfuls from the yard, wouldn’t light.  Only the tops were dry; the lower surface where they had been in contact with the grass was wet and already composting in place.  This didn’t become clear until they were already on the fire.  I managed to salvage the endeavor by finding some newspaper indoors (not easy in 2021 – we’re reduced to burning junk mail coupons), but what resulted was a roaring fire that gave off so much smoke I was still smelling it the next day inside a facemask that hadn’t even been next to the fire.

Building that fire was part of my attempt to climb out of a well of depression, the latest in a series I have experienced since the start of the pandemic.  I wasn’t just building fires: I was playing music, finishing a collaborative piece of writing I’d been working on with Rick Light, even going out a few times to places that were vigilantly checking vaccine cards.

And then I got Omicron.

This has been the pattern: the sheer weight of responsibility, of loss, adds up until I start to spiral.  I reach what feels like the bottom, and like Yosef in prison I decide I just can’t give myself over to despair.  So I rally.  I reach for inspiration.  I write.  I use my favorite Freudian defense mechanism, mastery, to gain a feeling of control over my work, gaining strength from knowing when I’ve made an astute diagnosis, said exactly what someone needs to hear, or gone the extra mile to make some difficult arrangement for a person I’m caring for.  I connect with friends, live life to the reasonable limits of what is possible and safe in this time, even attend weddings.  I feel alive again.

And then something happens, and I spiral again.  Or in the case of this week, I just plummet.

After two years of this, it is reasonable to ask, “How much are we meant to endure?”  By we, I could mean me, my family, our community (remember, I live in Pittsburgh, where we were barely a year into recovering from a terrorist attack on a synagogue when the pandemic started), the health professions, or the world as a whole.  It doesn’t matter anymore; there is no one who has been untouched by the rolling series of disasters.  How many more of these are we supposed to experience before it is reasonable to cry, “Stop!  We can’t take anymore!”? 

The last verses of chapter 2 of Shmot, which we read this week, show us a glimpse of the enslaved Israelites at a similar breaking point.  “The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God.”  A new Pharaoh had just taken power – not the one from Yosef’s time, who we learn at the beginning of Chapter 1 is long gone, and not the one who decreed the policy of infanticide, but a third (at least) Pharaoh.  While good for Moshe, since the warrant for his death expired with the death of the second Pharaoh, it was terrible for the Israelites since the new ruler had further worsened the conditions under which they worked.  So they cried out for help.

There are three possible answers to this cry, ones that I have rolled over in my mind for 21 months since the full weight of the pandemic settled on us here in Pittsburgh.  First, and most sobering, is that we are meant to endure all of this and more.  Life takes place in a Hobbesian state of nature, is “nasty, brutish, and short,” and all our 20th and 21st century hopes that we were on the cusp of defeating disease, war, pestilence, famine and drought were not just premature but delusional, diametrically opposed to an increasingly chaotic, entropic reality. 

This view runs counter to everything I want to believe, to the view from Rabbi Yitz Greenberg I adopted long ago that Shmot, and indeed the whole saga of the Jewish people, is that God does not want humans to be enslaved, God does not want humans to suffer, God sees and hears people’s pain when they cry out, and God expects other human beings to rise to the challenge and do something about it.

The second, most hopeful, answer is, “Not much more, just a little bit longer.”  And indeed, in those moments just before the spiral, this is the answer I’ve willed myself to believe throughout the pandemic – the initial lockdowns had curtailed the disease, vaccines were coming, boosters were coming, case counts were in the single digits per day.  It couldn’t be much longer. 

This is the answer, I think, that Shmot 2:24-25 would have us believe as well: “God heard their moaning, and God remembered God’s covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.  God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”  The covenant, of course, was that the enslavement had a predetermined time limit, and was now coming to an end.  If they could just hang on, they would see their fortunes turn.  Yes, some of the suffering was Divinely ordained, but it has its limits.  The Malbim’s commentary on Shmot 2:23 is that God took note of the fact that many Israelites had been slain in the course of their slave labor, falling from scaffolds or crushed under the bricks of the pyramids.  Slavery had been foretold and necessary, but not this meaningless death.  The Haamek Davar follows that God had been hearing the individual cries of suffering since the beginning of enslavement, but that now God also hears the people crying in a collective prayer – I believe, meaning that now, the point has been made and further enslavement is not needed.

But there is a third possibility, disturbing in a different way than the first.  That possibility states that we are not meant to accept the suffering, but to fight against it – yet despite our resistance, the suffering, the torment, will not end.  Which brings me back to firewood, in the form of the Burning Bush.

While I was sending smoke signals from my yard last week, I realized that the image of the bush was bothering me this year.  My teachers have always used the bush as a symbol of our, meaning “the Jews’,” continued endurance in the face of hardship.  Through this recent cycle of dashed hopes, however, one driver of my frustration has been the inability to wear any other “we” or “us” except “doctors” or “health professionals.”  And “we” are often assumed to be like the bush, carrying an endless reserve of fuel so that we can keep burning forever, without burning out – or burning up.  The typical explanation of how the bush could have burned without being consumed, “black fire” vs. “red fire,” is so otherworldly that it only reinforces this idea that somehow we are meant to be superhuman, magical beings who don’t wound, fall ill, or get tired like normal people.

Worse still is the possibility suggested by Rabbi Ovadia Sforno: the bush represents not the Israelites, but the Egyptians, and the fire is the plagues.  S’neh, the specific word for bush in Shmot 3:2, doesn’t mean any bush at all, but a thorn bush native to the desert.  Just as Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim, a narrow place, or “dire straits” as I have called it in the past, a thorn bush is a place where animals in the desert get stuck and injured.  The Israelites in Egypt were like an animal caught in a thorn bush, unable to escape.  God sent the fire of the plagues – and the bush was not consumed!  The tormentor, the suffering, the source of our agony, is going to survive this whole mess intact!  “COVID is going to be with us for a long time,” say the experts now.  I’d like to disregard the message – but like the Sforno, these are the people whose interpretation of the facts I usually find to be spot on.

If there is solace, and I’m not sure there is, it is in the much more naturalistic explanations of the Targum Yerushalayim and Ibn Ezra.  Targum Yerushalayim renders, “was not consumed” as “remained moist.”  Moist?  Ibn Ezra explains that, as we said above, s’neh is a thorn bush native to the desert – specifically, the kind of thorn bush after which Mount Sinai (from the same root as s’neh) is named.  In a totally dry environment, how on earth did the bush get there?  Clearly, there must be water underneath somewhere.  But it is hardly adequate; as I struggled to light my damp fire here in the Eastern US, I thought of the bitter irony of how what I was doing is illegal in most Western states, where a single errant spark can burn down entire counties.

Ibn Ezra, the linguist, has such people in mind as he brings in another verse that uses the word, D’varim 33:16, “the goodwill of the one who dwells in the bush.”   Not The Bush, says Ibn Ezra, but the one who dwells where there are a lot of s’neh – one who dwells in the desert.  And what does that person, the denizen of Midian, or Colorado, or California, will?  “A person living in such a place entreats and prays that God do his will and wet the land that he lives in. He prays that God change it from a dry place, a place where the seneh grows, to an amply watered place so that it becomes like a wet and well-watered garden.”

We need water.  I can no longer believe that there is a definable end in sight; I’ve had too many lights at the end of too many tunnels turn out to be oncoming trains.  And as much as I would like to, I can’t give in to despair.  I let slip to my boss on Monday that I was “about done with this.”  “What do you mean, done?” she replied.  I didn’t have a ready answer – it’s not as though there is a single fiber of who I am that would let me give up even the most futile fight to try to protect someone, somewhere, from the ravages of this mess.  The only choice is to be like the bush.  But how?  Where is the water?

I am hoping this is the first in a four-part series of posts. Check back over the next three weeks to find out if I made it – and whether I find water at the end.