If you’ve never sat in an eerily empty subway car amid a global pandemic, while reading a novel about a strain of influenza wiping out 99% of the world population — well, I don’t recommend it.
But that was a few morning commutes for me as the novel coronavirus knocked on America’s door. I was working on a review of Emily St. John Mandel’s new book, which necessitated rereading her apocalyptic 2014 bestseller “Station Eleven.” I started to question my life choices.
The running joke is that the writers behind our current plotlines of reality are going all-in, as if “America: The Series” isn’t getting renewed. And so the Times of Israel headline on March 16 seemed to follow the theme nicely: “Plague of locusts set to descend upon Middle East in time for Passover.”
Dueling plagues will surely make everyone’s seder feel more relevant. But it’ll also be instructive about human nature, fear, and our understanding of miracles.
Each locust, according to experts, can consume its own weight in pilfered crops every day — and will hit an area of the world already facing food shortages. That means a giant swarm of locusts is no joke. But the relaying of these headlines is almost always done in the tone of a punchline. The coronavirus, in contrast, is (rightly) spoken of almost exclusively in terror. The difference between the two highlights an aspect of the Ten Plagues we rarely pay much attention to.
No one ever says, “Hey isn’t it funny that a plague suffocating people to death in isolation is hitting just in time for Passover?” It’s a coincidence, perhaps, but a grim one. Yet we flippantly joke about the timing when it comes to locusts. Locusts — and frogs, to name another example — tend to be the ones we picture when we talk about ancient plagues. The word itself has an almost fantastical connotation to us.
This is understandable: We first learn about them when we’re kids, after all. The holiday is also, ultimately, a happy one. We were slaves; now we are free. But aside from abridging the Hallel prayer, how much do we really think about the massive loss of life accompanying our liberation?
The punishment doled out to our tormentors can be both just and tragic.
The older one is, the more likely he or she is to suffer after contracting the coronavirus — and more likely to die. And the suffering and death are done in isolation. So perhaps one lesson of our current terrifying moment is — at least for the adults — to think not of frogs and locusts but of the killing of the firstborn, and of suffocating darkness, when we hear the word “plague.”
But it should also teach us about faith. On Shemini Atzeret each year, we resume adding the line “mashiv ha’ruach u’morid ha’gashem” to our prayers, expressing our appreciation of the one who makes the wind blow and the rain fall. The rain part is obvious — at that time of year we’re heading into a season in which the crops need rainfall. That is also the part of the prayer that is most important; we must repeat the Shemonah Esrei if we forget it. Why? The Gemara teaches us that we don’t have to ask for wind: The world cannot survive without it, and therefore it will never be withheld.
It’s an important point: The part of that formula that the world cannot exist without is that which we cannot see. We only know it is there because of its effect on what we can see.
So it is with God Himself.
As a public service during this pandemic, the Forward is providing free, unlimited access to all coronavirus articles. If you’d like to support our independent Jewish journalism, click here.
And in this is another lesson about the plagues. The coronavirus, like the death of the firstborn, is invisible. And it leaves in its wake a mostly invisible, yet supremely potent, pain: grief.
So the lesson of the plagues — then and now, ancient and modern — is, yes, the indelible image of its carnage. But if we really want to understand what we and others have gone through, and the most powerful forces at play in our stories, we must then ask: What am I not seeing?
This is one in a series of pieces on Passover during coronavirus. Read the rest of the series here.
Seth Mandel is the executive editor of the Washington Examiner.
The invisible plague: grief