The Plague – Rosh Hashana 5782/2021

This High Holiday sermon was delivered at Rosh Hashana evening services at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in September/Tishrei 2021/5782. It was part of a series entitled “After Disaster.” Video of these High Holiday services and sermons is available here.

Every spring, most Jews, and those who love them, gather during Passover to “remember” plagues that never happened. Some have tried scientific explanation for the 10 plagues – a red algae infestation made the Nile look like blood; the algae pushed frogs out of the river and into people’s homes; after the frogs died the insects came, etc. That would make Moses, who calls plagues before they happen, a better forecaster than the Weather Channel – admittedly, not a high bar. If we believe that this is a story and not history, I see 3 clear goals behind the 10 plagues narrative: Yahveh the god of the Hebrews shows his dominance over the gods of Egypt; Yahveh punishes the Egyptians for keeping Hebrew slaves; and Yahveh provides an object lesson to the Hebrews to follow his rules, no matter how unusual. Earlier tonight, we recalled the last plague, the most awe-inspiring and awful – death of the firstborn. How do the Hebrews save their children from this last plague? Not by social distancing, not by masks, not by nor vaccination or hand sanitizer – they are saved by doing as they are commanded, even if it makes no sense, because Yahveh said so. The point is made explicitly throughout Exodus: “If you will listen Yahveh your God diligently, doing what is correct in His view, hearing His commandments and keeping all His laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases I brought upon the Egyptians, for I Yahveh am your healer.” Put more simply: do as I say, or else…

The Jewish people has faced many real disasters over many centuries of real history – the destruction of the first Jerusalem Temple in 586 BCE, the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 of the Common Era, the Expulsion from Spain in 1492… yet our mythical memory takes pride of place in our cultural calendar. Passover is a much bigger deal for most Jews than Tisha B’Av which remembers the Temples’ destructions. Before modern science, Jewish responses to plagues were largely the same as the Torah: fasting to atone for sins, praying for mercy, trying to avoid the Angel of Death. As medical knowledge grew, humanity learned that quarantines and cleanliness are much more effective against disease than piety and godliness. During a cholera epidemic in 1848, Rabbi Israel Salanter told his congregation to eat if they felt weak on the fast day of Yom Kippur, even without talking to a doctor, in order to save their lives! We learned; well, MOST of us have learned.

Humanity learns. How did we win the arms race of the animal kingdom? It was not our speed or strength or instincts – it was our large brain that enabled us to discover, to study, to experiment, to learn and then to teach. Of course, we can teach each other stories and superstitions, or we can teach science and survival – most of us do some of both, because life without stories is blah. We learn not only from our own encounters with the natural world; we also learn from the experiences of past generations. Jews are heirs to a tradition of cultural resilience and creativity; we know how to rebuild after disaster.

This New Year, as we look back on twelve months of great losses and prepare ourselves for the unknown disasters of the year just begun, we resolve to learn from what has befallen us. After disaster, people often ask “How? Why?” The traditional answer “for your sins” is an answer to “why;” a Humanist approach focuses on “how” so we can learn future prevention, because there is no cosmic “why” to explain the death of the firstborn or the deaths of millions from COVID-19.

One truth we have learned from the past 12 months is an insight into how we learn, and how we refuse to learn. The sad truth is that we often resist learning that which challenges our world view. It is much easier cognitively and emotionally to fit new information into old categories, to re-affirm what we already know to be true. It is much harder to change our minds and potentially undermine what we have said we believe and who we think we are. If we believe people are basically mean, we seek out corroborating evidence and dismiss contrary examples as “exceptions.” If we believe people are basically good, we do the same thing in the opposite direction. Our pandemic experience has provided evidence on both sides of this question. Most people wear masks and keep their distance, and some people militantly refuse any accommodation for other people’s health. We have also seen that we can believe some outlandish things, and we can refuse to let go of those beliefs even in the face of strong evidence and the testimony of credible authorities who show their evidence. Many people quarantined their mail and their groceries for days long after we knew that those were not sources of COVID transmission. Many people continue to refuse to believe that COVID is real and that vaccines work with no magnetism or microchips, even as they and their loved ones are getting sick and even dying. Rather than admit we were wrong, we continue, we justify, we rationalize, we explain away that which we cannot accept.

The book of Jeremiah records two reactions to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in the 6th century BCE. The prophet Jeremiah blames the people for worshiping many gods and goddesses – they caused Yahveh’s anger which caused the destruction – it was their fault. But some Judean women and their husbands read the same evidence differently:

They answered Jeremiah—all the men who knew that their wives made offerings to other gods; all the women present, a large gathering . . .: “We will not listen to you in the matter about which you spoke to us in the name of YHWH. On the contrary, we will do everything we have vowed—to make offerings to the Queen of Heaven and to pour libations to her, as we used to do, we and our fathers, our kings and our officials, in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem. For then we had plenty to eat, we were well-off, and suffered no misfortune. But ever since we stopped making offerings to the Queen of Heaven and pouring libations to her, we have lacked everything, and we have been consumed by the sword and by famine.

[Jeremiah 44:15-18]

In other words, worshipping many gods was just fine until we changed to worshipping only Yahveh! Both sides insist they are reading the destruction evidence correctly, and that the evidence supports what they already believe. In MY humble opinion, both Jeremiah AND the worshippers of the Queen of Heaven were wrong – the Babylonian Empire was simply larger, stronger and more capable militarily – that’s “how,” if not a cosmic “why,” Jerusalem fell. Of course, _I_ don’t need to justify any past worship of either the Queen of Heaven or of Yahveh, and I DO want to confirm a secular reading of history, so maybe they were right: the Queen of Heaven really was mad!

The Jewish New Year is a time of self-judgment: we look in the mirror and try to see ourselves as we truly are, and as we truly have been. Were we basically good? Were we really as good as we imagine ourselves to be? Where did we fall short and what can we learn? It is much easier cognitively and emotionally to give ourselves a pass and simply assume we were who we thought we were. I would challenge us to do better in both knowledge and self-knowledge. No one knows everything, and no one is perfect. This year, try one of two things: try learning something new that changes your mind on an important issue. Or try changing something about yourself that needs changing. Neither task is easy, and you can debate which would be harder for you – changing your mind or changing behavior. If we do end up learning one thing from the disaster of the COVID pandemic, let it be how we learn and why it is important to make ourselves learn.  If we understand that, we will have learned a lot.

During this 18 month disaster of many waves, some people definitely learned the wrong lessons. These multiple rounds of mass infection & death, particularly since vaccines have been widely available, they are infuriating because some people just keep assuming it will not happen to them – they are young, they are strong, they are not in a big city, & worse race-based denialism. Some will not consider getting vaccinated on behalf of those who cannot, especially children. The attitude of “Not my problem” becomes all of our problem. There are also those out there who have dragged out the old religious reasons. Tate Reeves, Governor of Mississippi, explained his state’s low vaccination rate & resistance to masking by saying “If you believe in eternal life, then you don’t have to be so scared of things.” They believe that the plague is a divine punishment for our sins, and therefore prayer and piety are the magic antidote to avoid infection. I do not think anyone has tried lamb’s blood on doorposts yet, but it may still be coming.

The WORST wrong lesson is the claim that science is unreliable because it changes its mind! I did see an amusing editorial cartoon about the CDC:

CARTOON: Hokey-pokey | Las Vegas Review-Journal
“You put your mask back on, you take your mask back off, you put your mask back on, until you make them scream and shout. You got a vaccination, now we say it’s not enough, that’s how we’re sowing doubt.

It is true that messages have changed. What was true for the initial strains of COVID regarding transmission has changed with the Delta variant. So recommendations have changed along with it. It’s a trust paradox: the more truly responsive a scientist is to new evidence, the more they are likely to change their recommendations when needed!

This behavior is so unusual for us, we are so used to people KEEPING their beliefs DESPITE the evidence! Ordinary people tend to fit new evidence into what they already know to be true. So if scientists keep “changing their minds,” then science seems either to be fickle or really to be a tool for social control – testing what you are willing to do without thinking, if the government tells you to. And that is why some of the reactions against masks have been so insistent and so angry, and why the pandemic is grinding on well into its second year and likely beyond. Because some people believe that sometimes a mask is not just a mask.

Disasters always have ripple effects and lasting lessons that stretch far beyond the initial catastrophe. The Destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 586 BCE continues to echo today in the Jewish experience of Diaspora and our focus on Jewish survival and thriving. What have we learned then from this COVID disaster – if not the cosmic whys, then which hows and how not to’s?

First, we’ve learned about the power of symbols and identity. We know that people are tribal; we know that we root for our team and against other teams, we know that the other team does not always play fair or have our best interests in mind. And we know that our identities are expressed through the symbols we use. Are you team mask or team freedom? Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter? Do you trust the government, the police and medical authorities to look out for you, or do you have a history of being discriminated against and abused by those authorities? We know it is much harder to give up some of our advantages to strangers than it is to give to the family and friends on our side. We’ll talk more about the limits of “we’re all in this together” tomorrow morning as we explore a different disaster, the plague of Hate and Indifference – we may all be in the same ocean, but it makes a big difference whether you are in a leaky rowboat, a Navy destroyer or a luxury yacht.

After Jerusalem was destroyed, Judeans in Babylonian exile faced a challenge to their identity – they had always been Judeans in Judea; could they now be Yehudim/Jews anywhere in the world? Some of their survival strategies no longer speak to us: believing they were the Chosen People of the only God may have kept them Jewish through medieval persecution but today strikes us as chauvinist and egocentric. At the same time, we do not want to disappear into a melting pot that robs us of distinct culture and heritage. Today we live in the multicultural soup of an open society – giving to the shared broth with other ingredients while trying to maintain our own integrity. If we are a tomato, the longer we cook the more we break down; if we are a rock, we barely change but we give nothing to the whole and are not really part of the social soup. Tonight we heard the shofar, read from the Torah, sang in Hebrew, gathered for the Jewish new year of Rosh Hashana. The meaning of these symbols may be different between Orthodox Jews and Humanistic Jews, but they are Jewish symbols that we share.

Second, we have learned what is really important. Of course, we need to survive, and we made sacrifices to survive COVID-19 and to save other lives. But we need more than survival. After a while, even the introverts started missing contact with other people! Even Netflix stream-a-holics went outside! We have found or rediscovered that, more than just survive, we also need to THRIVE. We need joy and live music and sharing meals and time together. Over the last 12 months, I had two chances to go to Ravinia Park – the first was last November, while I was serving as an election judge – the part was as beautiful as ever, it was an unseasonably beautiful day, and the part was entirely empty, no people and no music. Then this past summer, after the park reopened for events, I went for a classical concert. It was raining and dark, but there were people and there was music there. I would absolutely have chosen the second over the first. After Jerusalem was destroyed, the simple territorial Judean-ness of the 7th century BCE needed to transform into the ethno-religious identity of early Judaism, and that ethno-religion was a first step towards the cultural Jewish identity that we celebrate. Jewish survival alone is not enough – we are more than a DNA preservation project. When we toast “L’Chaim – To life,” we not only toast our survival – we also toast joyous celebration.

After the Babylonian empire fell, most Jews returned to Judea and eventually rebuilt Jerusalem and a second temple. We, too, need to turn to rebuilding. We know that, in this pandemic, prevention and the cure are NOT worse than the disease, but we also need to be cured from the problems of the cure – isolation, suspicion, houses divided against themselves which we will turn to on Yom Kippur.

Third, beyond the power of symbols and the need to return and rebuild, we learned to live with uncertainty. The newly-minted Jewish Diaspora 2,500 years ago did not know how long they would stay in one place, or whether their ultimate redemption was guaranteed. Jews had to learn new languages, explore new foods, and over the centuries we became a world people. It took courage to change, it took hope that this change would strengthen us for the future. The impacts of COVID will be felt for a long time – COVID long-haulers already know. At the same time, while we fret about breakthrough cases, when you have 176 million people vaccinated nationally, even 1 out of 200 means 880,000 cases nationally.[i] That big number of 800,000 exceptions gets a lot more attention than 175 million NON-breakthroughs. 99% immunity means there is still risk; wearing a seatbelt makes sense and will never be 100% safe – people die wearing seatbelts, we still use our cars. If 1 in 200 of the vaccinated experience breakthrough, most with mild or no symptoms, only 1 in 10,000 were hospitalized. Of course, people still play the Powerball lottery and hope to win – and those odds are 1 in 300 million!

There is good reason to be careful, to follow prudent precautions, to wear your seatbelt when you drive, to take care to take care of others as well as yourself, to limit your absolute freedom so you can love your neighbor. Pious fundamentalists praying for healing claim 100% faith that they are right; secular skeptics taking vaccines & improving the world a little at a time are 99% certain the pious are wrong. That missing 1%? It represents honesty, and the courage to live in an uncertain world.

Once upon a time, people believed that everything had a reason, even plagues. Some assumed the reasons revolved around them and their behavior – the rain fell or did not fall, people lived or died by fire or by water, by violence or by plague because of who they were and how they acted. Today some of us can accept that there is no cosmic reason behind pandemics or geopolitical conflict, that Jerusalem fell for military and not theological reasons, that the story of the death of the firstborn was told with an agenda of social control, not history. For us, everything has a cause, if not a reason. Our task on the other side of disaster is to learn what caused the disaster, to do our best to manage the tragic effects, and to avoid that cause in the future. We are not yet certain what caused the first case of COVID 19, but we do know what caused the pandemic of its spread. As Shakespeare put it, “the fault is not in the stars… but in ourselves.” [Julius Caesar I,3] If the world is uncertain, unjust, undetermined, then we must make the difference. Our world of family, friends and fellowship depends on us. Let us make a Shana Tova, a good and healthy year, our reality.


[i] 0.5% breakthrough rate reported in WA and CT in early September. Washington State Dept. of Health figures 9/2/2021, Connecticut statistics 9/3/2021

About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
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1 Response to The Plague – Rosh Hashana 5782/2021

  1. Pingback: After Disaster – High Holidays 2021/5782 | Shalom from Rabbi Chalom

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