Will we use the coronavirus experience as a wakeup call that we need to do things differently on so many fronts?

At our Sedarim around the world last week, asking the question, “Ma nishtanah halailah hazeh?” (How is this night different from all others?) took on deeper meaning as we hoped and prayed that the dark angel of the novel coronavirus would pass over. That stark existential reality should give us pause, not only to appreciate with greater awareness what we have, but also to use this moment as an opportunity to refocus, to realign and to recalibrate.

In Stephen Sontheim’s Into the Woods, the narrator remarks how, “often one sees how crisis can be instructive, even perhaps a bit seductive.” This is a juncture in the history of the world when we should ask ourselves as individuals, as well as the social beings we are, what we can do to improve our decisions and our actions to move closer to become a more perfect family of humanity. The conflict resolution scholar and activist Elise Boulding advocates that we see ourselves as members of a global civic culture and community.

The word pandemic reminds us that we can’t escape the fact of the human world wide web we share. Pandemic literally means, “all the people,” derived from pan (Greek for all) and demos (Greek for people). This virus underscores the countless ways that we are connected one to the other. Our shared humanity, including those with whom we disagree. Peter Yarrow recently commented how the lyric “Let anger not tear us apart” in his song “Light One Candle,” is more relevant today than when he wrote it in 1982.

If this is true for those with whom we disagree, it is even more so regarding those whom we perceive to be our enemies.

Poignant was that moment from last week’s Seder when we dipped our finger in our glass of wine and took out ten drops of the sweet wine to diminish our joy as we remembered the humanity of our oppressors who died so that we could once again be free. That action echoes the message of the Proverbs (24:17), “Do not rejoice at the downfall of your enemy,” and the Midrash (Megillah 10b) where God chastises the angles for singing at the drowning of the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds. In addition, at Rosh Hashanah an explanation for the sound of the shofar is to recall the sobbing of our enemy Sisera on the loss of her son (Rosh Hashanah 33b).

REFLECTING ON his time during the Yom Kippur War when he was part of the team which dealt with transferring bodies of dead Israeli and Egyptian soldiers, Rabbi Michael Graetz writes, “After the cease fire, supervised by a UN force, a system of relationships between Israeli and Egyptian soldiers developed on all levels of command. Since I was a native English speaker, I became part of the many meetings between Egyptian, Israeli and UN officers as a translator. I was present in these meetings from the very beginning when they began in the middle of a street in the city of Suez… As I reflected on the meetings and the ‘transfers’ I began to realize that a kind of atmosphere of soldier’s honor developed between the Egyptian and Israeli officers, even a certain admiration and camaraderie for the humanity of the “other.” This psychological development occurred even among noncommissioned soldiers but, to a lesser extent. They did not experience long hours of being in discussion with the “other,” rather only passing sporadic moments together at the ‘transfer’ point. But, even that was enough to spark an awareness of the humanity of the other side.”

We diminish our joy when we reduce the wine in our glass so that we don’t lose sight of our shared humanity, even with our enemies. With the distance of 3,000 years since slavery in Egypt that might appear as a simple act to do at the Seder table. To really grasp the depth of that moment, think about if the tradition on Independence Day was to pause and diminish what sweet drink or food we are having and to remember that the establishment of Israel, our freedom, came at the expense of the Palestinian Arabs who were living here at the time. Not an easy thing to do, but that is exactly what that moment during the Seder is telling us.

Perhaps now, under the shadow of the deadly angel/plague of the COVID-19 disease, we can feel ourselves as Pharaoh and the Egyptians did under the plagues mentioned in the Haggadah. With that emotional and psychological insight can we allow ourselves to be nudged to see the humanity in the Palestinans? That of course, is a reciprocal question addressed as well to the Palestinians about us.

At the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies located on Kibbutz Ketura Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Moroccans and international students learn how to build bridges of trust between themselves under the awareness that, “Nature Knows No Borders.” By extension, the coronavirus draws attention to the biology of the world to which we humans belong, and it also knows no borders. We all share this fragile tiny speck of a planet in the vastness of the universe.
In a recent article in The Atlantic, “We Were Warned,” Uri Freidman documents how this pandemic was no surprise, yet preparedness has been haphazard at best and, in too many ways – proven to be deadly – we have been caught off guard. We should take advantage of this singular global episode and allow ourselves to be challenged as individuals, societies, and as a global community to take stock (cheshbon hanefesh in Hebrew) of how we got here.

Part of that introspection will force us to examine our human tendency to think about short term over long term and to be reactive rather than proactive. The warnings of the climate crisis have been more direct and clearer than those of the coronavirus now at our doorposts. We have been warned about the climate catastrophe heading our way, some would say like a message conveyed by a Biblical prophet. But will we listen?

Will we use the coronavirus experience as a wakeup call that we need to do things differently on so many fronts? There are two outcomes in the telling of the Passover story. One perspective was those who allowed the plagues to harden their hearts as they double downed in their ways. In the end, they died from the final plague. The other, which we celebrate at the end of Passover, are those who crossed the Sea of Reeds into the desert; into an uncharted future with the promise of a better tomorrow.

May that be our choice and our path.