Passover, Plagues and COVID 19 by Dr Leon Piterman

As we approach Passover 2020 it is , as always , time to reflect on the meaning and significance of this important festival. We are familiar with the symbolism that Passover offers . The power struggle between a humble , stuttering individual ( Moses) representing an enslaved and impoverished community and the great Pharaoh, almost certainly Ramses11, representing the all powerful Egyptian State and Empire . The quest for freedom and finally the exodus and its trials and tribulations on the way to a land supposedly “flowing with milk and honey”, are well known. It is easy to contextualize the lessons learned from the chapter Exodus in the Bible to events that have occurred since that time ,around 1300 BCE, including some in our own life time. The French Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, the American Civil war the fight for Black rights, Gay rights, the World wars and ongoing conflicts all involve a struggle often by an oppressed class against an oppressor . Class struggle is ubiquitous whether it involves a trade union fighting for the rights of workers against large and small corporations or at a national level in the form of civil unrest seen recently in Hong Kong or in civil wars including Lebanon, the Balkans and Yemen,

As we prepare to sit down or Zoom down at the traditional sedar meal and read the Haggadah restricted by social and physical isolation we are in the midst of the greatest plague in our lifetime, COVID 19, which is affecting hundreds of thousands, soon possibly millions, and killing thousands. So when the time honored question “ ma nishtana halayla hazeh?”, “why is this night different” , is asked , the answer is quite simple: COVID 19

In terms of plagues it seems appropriate to examine the 10 plagues, highlighted if not celebrated in the Haggadah and their influence on shifting the balance of power in Egypt , and the potential for COVID 19 to bring about a shift in political power and social transformation in this country and elsewhere, particularly in western usually capitalist democracies.

There is no doubt that the Pharaohs and Egypt benefitted economically from the 400 years of Hebrew slavery, if indeed that period lasted so long. One can understand the unwillingness of Ramses 11 to part with free labour. No different to the experience in the American South or our exploitation of cheap labour in Bangladesh. So when Moses turns up waving his rod demanding the release of some 40, 000 or more slaves and their families, threatening to bring God sanctioned disaster upon Egypt if the demand is not met, it is hardly surprising that he is treated with scorn and derision. The magic trick of turning his rod into a serpent did not impress. Many historians, archeologists and other scholars treat Moses as a mythical character, but even so this does not diminish the significance and the symbolism of the myth nor the importance of freedom from slavery. I would posit that slavery may not always be externally imposed .We may be slaves to our own fears , beliefs and habits. In the midst of COVID 19 fear is certainly enslaving many of us.

However , I want to focus on the nature of the 10 plagues and test their veracity in terms of contemporary knowledge and then examine their impact on Egyptian leadership and life in Egypt in comparison to other well documented plagues, as well as the plague of COVID 19 .
Reading the Haggadah one is left with the impression that these so called plagues occurred sequentially over a relatively short period of time, brought Ramses and the leadership to its knees until they finally let the Hebrews go. Even going along with the myth this is highly unlikely. The bible tells us that Moses lived to 120 years then died on Mount Nebo in view of the promised land. We are told that the Hebrews wandered in the desert for 40 years, so Moses was 80 when this nomadic journey began. His first attempt at convincing Pharaoh occurred he was around 40 so there was a long period between the first attempt and the final response. Ramses 11 reigned for 67 years so there was a lengthy period of interaction between Moses and Ramses 11 , at least 40 years. During this time it is quite likely that many environmental , ecological and medical disasters may have occurred which were interpreted by the Egyptians as punishments from their own gods not Yaveh. Moses may simply have turned up after the event and said “ Nu , I told you so.”

Taking the 10 plagues individually we can relate our own experiences , many contemporary to these events which the Bible and the Haggadah call plagues. I have listed these below:

1 Water turned to blood and death of fish . In periods of drought, rivers dry and in many places will assume the colour of red mud, the colour of sand which forms the bed of the river. We only have to look at our own Murray Darling disaster with loss of millions of fish to relate to this plague.
2 Frogs . Let’s not go beyond our own cane toads
3 Lice . Outbreaks regularly occur in schools and lice permanently exist in circumstances of deprivation.
4 Wild animals and flies. Destruction caused by foxes, rabbits , fruit fly.
5 Pestilence of livestock . Foot rot, mad cow disease
6 Boils . School sores , impetigo, flesh eating bacteria
7 Thunderstorms, hail, fire . Floods in the North of Australia, bushfires in the South
8 Locusts. Regular outbreaks in crop farming
9 Darkness, solar eclipse
10 Death of first born. This is the first plague which directly reports the loss of human life and is attributed to Pharaoh softening his attitude as he lost his son. It is more difficult to contextualize this. First born sons are more likely to have pyloric stenosis , but this sounds more like an infective process maybe measles or meningitis .

Whatever the cost paid by Pharaoh in releasing the slaves , it seemed to have very little impact on the status of Ramses 11, Egypt or its empire. Ramses reigned from 1279 – 1213 and lived to 90. The Empire remained a force until the reign of Cleopatra 69-30 BCE when it fell to Roman occupation.

So in the case of Egypt, plagues did not account for mass loss of lives and did not lead to economic and social disruption .
This was not the case with the Great Plague of Athens in 430 BCE which killed 100,000 , possibly as result of typhus or typhoid, and ultimately led to the destruction of Athenian democracy.

Nor was it the case with the Bubonic Plague in London in 1667 or the Spanish Flu in 1918-20 which resulted in 500,000,000 affected and as many as 50 million lives lost. Both had dire social and economic consequences.

So as we go through the Haggadah and our sedar meal in relative solitude , possibly for the first time in history, what is it we should contemplate ? We need to find meaning in the stories and symbols that Passover offers.

We are currently living in a form of captivity ( it could be worse) isolated physically and socially as never before. It is easy to sink into emotional and mental captivity through loss of hope , loss of purpose, loss of meaning , loss of income and fear of loss of a future as well as fear of death.

However , captivity seldom lasts forever. Although we should give some thought to those less fortunate than us who have been in captivity for years through some form of state sponsored suppression. And I include those refugees on Manus and Nauru in that category .

We are slaves captured by an unseen and hitherto unknown enemy. A global pandemic of this magnitude has never been seen. However , we know that despite the suffering and loss of lives , this will end. But at what social and economic cost. This may be seen as a Kuhnsian crisis and such crises are followed by revolution( not usually violent) and a new order or new paradigm. It is important to give some thought to the possible scope and shape of that new order socially and politically . What will our society look like in Australia when a 4 billion promised surplus is turned into a 300 billion deficit in a matter of weeks.

How will we deal with our fellow man and woman who has no job, no home, lost family members? Will we be more humane, less spendthrift, more benevolent? Will our society become more egalitarian? Will there be chaos or even revolution?

Let us make the most of this compromised Passover but let us not dwell on the mythical issues presented in Haggadah alone without thinking and exploring their meaning in April 2020 and the options that confront us when this nightmare is over.

Leon Piterman
April , 2020

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