I once wrote a column where I suggested California might ease its drought (remember when drought was California’s worst problem?) if its leaders or representatives went to Jerusalem for Sukkot. I was riffing on Zekhariah 14, where the prophet tells of a post-apocalyptic time, where rain will come to each part of the world only if they go to the Temple on Sukkot to recognize Gd and ask for rain.
The thesis has clear holes, such as whether we already live in a time where Gd requires open recognition. I meant it as a thought experiment, to test Jews’ belief in Gd’s control of nature. The idea Gd could intervene in whatever factors produced the drought should be unquestioned, because a central lesson of the Exodus from Egypt was supposed to be our awareness of Gd’s power over Nature and history. Once we accept Gd can, actions by Californians to articulate their recognition of Gd and subservience to Gd’s Will should themselves be a merit to help ameliorate the situation.
Unfortunately, not all Jews, even not all observant Jews, agree. I bring it up as Pesah approaches, because we are faced now with a terrible plague. How many of us are certain some part of the solution lies in our relationship with Gd? Leaving aside any issue of what led to the novel coronavirus—a sure way to fall into a bottomless pit of disagreement—can we agree it would be a merit affecting the plague’s progress if more people articulate their belief Gd runs history, a firm confidence this plague is not a random event, seek to improve our conduct?
I relate the question to Pesah because the Torah includes three key words in one of the versions it gives for how to tell our children about the Exodus, ve-otanu hotzi mi-sham, us He took out from there. The amora Rava tells us we should say those words at our Seder, although we obviously live centuries after the event. What message does ve-otanu hotzi mi-sham send?
The message of Gd’s continuing involvement in history. A long time ago, our ancestors were stuck in Egypt, enslaved by the most powerful nation on earth, whose leader refused to let us leave. The plagues demonstrated Gd’s complete mastery over whatever competitors to Gd’s power we might imagine, then did the unthinkable: removed us from Egypt.
The Seder celebrates freedom by emphasizing ideas I am not sure we remember, chief among them some unusually relevant this year. I will most likely spend Pesah in New York, although I continue to know (and to say) that’s only if Gd does not stop the coronavirus. Because one lesson of the plagues I think we are well-advised to articulate often was Gd’s ability to stop them instantly. Tradition has it the hail stopped on its way down, suspended in midair and then disappearing. Coronavirus could stop now, although we obviously all know it does not generally work that way.
Memory of the Exodus encompasses the events as well as the underlying propositions. As we face “natural” problems, remembering the Exodus tells us they only appear natural and insurmountable, with our current tools to address it. The Jews of the Exodus knew—and we know, to the extent we absorb the message—we have more than just our human tools, we have the Creator of the Universe. We cannot control the Creator, nor can we know Gd’s Will as clearly as Moshe could, but we can say, over and over, to remind ourselves and others, the outcomes are not determined by the rules of medicine or epidemiology, those disciplines simply accurately describe and extrapolate from the general pattern.
We were once slaves in Egypt, and a prophet came to tell us he had been sent to take us out. We believed him, then we lost faith. He performed plagues, signs, and wonders, proof Gd had powers the most sophisticated minds could not believe possible (like scientists today who refuse to believe in the metaphysical). When we left Egypt, led by Gd, we were told, in multiple ways, to keep the memory alive and meaningful.
Ve-otanu hotzi mi-sham, us He took out of there, then and—we can hope and pray—now, if we remember how history actually works, Gd peering from behind the lattices, waiting for us to see Gd’s Presence, recognize it, name it, and build a world filled with it.