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

The Return of Reverend Jacob Lenzer’s Piano


He is an impressive sight sitting in front of the solid upright piano, broad shouldered, with a full brown beard and long hair curled at the shoulders. His baritone singing resonates and fills the room whilst his fingers dance along the keys.

It could be a winter’s Motzei Shabbos, the smell of the Havdallah fragrance still lingering in the air. Congregants and friends are gathered around, joining in with the traditional Jewish songs interspersed with the occasional Russian operatic tune.

His wife Bertha (Tzipporah Brocha) is joined by other women and girls of the congregation in animated and jovial discussion.

The piano man is Rev Jacob Lenzer, East Melbourne Hebrew Congregation’s fourth rabbi and arguably the most popular and celebrated in its storied history.

The scene, admittedly influenced by Billy Joel’s famous song, is a play of my imagination (based largely on factual descriptions), as I rest my hands on the yellowed, worn keys of the newly arrived piano some 120 years later.

Close inspection of the small oxidized metal plaque on the piano’s front panel reveals the following words:

Presented to the

Rev J Lenzer

by a few of his admiring friends.

Melbourne, November 1892.


It was a random email from a total stranger, a bloke named Ting, which alerted me to the existence of this piano. It was for sale on Gumtree for $100, and it seems that people who search for second-hand pianos are also the type who will research miniature plaques on such pianos. Ting discovered that Rev J. Lenzer was indeed the rabbi of the same synagogue of which I am now the rabbi, and so he very generously contacted me via email, offering me first dibs on this piano.

When I spoke to the owner of the piano and offered $80 (I don’t care how sentimentally significant this thing is, a little hundling is always in order.), she was quick to accept. That sum was dwarfed by the moving costs but, encouraged by Dr Howard Freeman, Dr Alan Davis and various other mavinim, I arranged for the transportation. And here it is sitting in the old East Melbourne school room, now the Kiddush room named in honour of  Victor Smorgan. All we are awaiting is a good tuning and a rabbi with a bit of musical talent.

Rev Jacob Lenzer had that musical talent and more. He has been described as the most popular and accomplished rabbi in the long history of Melbourne’s oldest shul.

His versatile skill-set ranged from brilliant vocalist and musician to accomplished anatomist and mohel — a compelling combination. Born in Mohilev, Russia, in 1859, Rev Lenzer studied in the great Yeshivah of Volozhyn, becoming a Talmudic scholar by the age of 16.

In the subsequent years, Lenzer studied music from chazans Spivack (Kishinoff), Davidoff and Rubenstein (St Petersburg). It is recorded that he acted as an assistant minister in Count Poliakoff’s synagogue in Moscow in his early years.

So how did he come to travel from a pulpit in the shadow of the Kremlin to a pulpit in the shadow of the Victorian Parliament House? By reading the classifieds in the Russian newspaper! In Rev Lenzer’s own words: “Queer how I came to apply for this. One morning during breakfast looking down at the Hebrew missing-persons column of a Russian paper, I noticed that the East Melbourne Synagogue wanted a reader and singer, so I applied.”

After his arrival in 1888, it didn’t take long for Rev Lenzer to become the primary clergyman at the synagogue in 1890. Indeed, shortly thereafter Rev Jacob Lenzer was signed on as minister for life with a minimum stipend of 350 pounds per annum.

A rather colourful description of Simchas Torah by a visitor to the synagogue in the early 1900s includes lavish praise for the service and the minister: “Would any one of the 500 or more persons who attended the service at the Albert St Synagogue at Simchas Torah that evening say that he or she, as the case may be, did not enjoy the service? We hardly think so … At length Rev J Lenzer’s sonorous voice was heard intoning Borchu and immediately all was attention and the response was hearty … The Rev Lenzer’s rendering of the prayers is beautiful.”

In celebration of his 25th anniversary at the synagogue, the Jewish Herald wrote: 

“There are many yet left among us who will recall how, on the first Friday evening of Mr. Lenzer’s installation, the Albert-street Synagogue was packed to its utmost capacity, and how his magnificent voice and beautiful rendering of the service fairly conquered the whole body of worshippers. Although a quarter of a century of uninterrupted work has since elapsed, no diminution has taken place in the charm of his “Chazonuth,’ which still delights his congregation as much as ever.”

He remained the Chief Minister until his passing on 14 April 1922.

No doubt Rev Jacob Lenzer was an impressive man. But I’m still left scratching my head a little. How good was he to elicit admiration that culminated in the gifting of a piano? Perhaps I am a little jealous. How come I have never been gifted a piano by my admiring friends? To be sure this question would carry more weight if I could play the thing.

Despite the pangs of rabbinic envy, for the present I am content to bask in the warmth of kinship with my formidable predecessor, content in the knowledge that through an unlikely Divine Agent, Rev Lenzer’s piano has come home. I am also confident that somewhere up in heaven Yaakov ben Meir’s soul is having some spiritual satisfaction now that, after almost a century in exile, his piano is once again resting in his synagogue and that the congregation into which he invested so much energy still gathers for prayers and Jewish activities on almost a daily basis. Long may it be so.



Table talk, Melbourne, 21 Feb 1896

Jewish Herald Fri 15 August 1913

East Melbourne Historical Society Archives

Davis, Morris C. History of the East Melbourne Hebrew Congregation 1857-1977


This piece was written by Rabbi Dovid Gutnick who is the 16th Chief Minister of the East Melbourne Hebrew Congregation, after an unlikely reunification with a piano gifted to Rev. Jacob Lenzer. Rev Lenzer was the 4th Chief Minister of the Congregation. The piano now rests in the Victor Smorgon Community Hall at the rear of the synagogue for all to see and, subsequent to funds being raised, will be restored and tuned to be played at future synagogue events.