Plagues and pandemics: what can the Bible tell us about them?

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When I moved to Haifa, northern Israel, towards the end of the Second Lebanon War – with planes already having been cancelled once - I arrived at a new apartment with a number of problems. The previous owner had abandoned ship and moved south with his family, in concert with a third of the entire population of Haifa. Lethal cockroaches abounded and I had to stay with people I didn't know for a week, while the mashmid (exterminator, based on the biblical word – so I truly understood it) did his work.

Then, there was a huge water problem. Israel has had compulsory water metering for decades, and I found my first bill, when I had been there barely a week, came to about a year's worth of usage.

I spoke to my lawyer (everyone needs a lawyer and accountant in Israel), a brilliant woman from New York who has proved herself in all sorts of situations.

'It will be the rockets,' she said.

Her view was that the solar panel (known as dud shemesh in Hebrew) placed on the roof had been hit by Hezbollah's rockets during the war and had affected the water supply.

But I wasn't so sure. If that was the case, why weren't others in the block affected? I asked the residents of the top flat whether any damp had been coming through, and it had. So, I concluded it must be that a screw was loose in the dud shemesh as the flat's owner had not been there.  And, therefore, what might have needed a small repair had grown into gigantic proportions which I simply couldn't afford.

So on erev Shabbat (the day before the Sabbath), I managed to acquire a plumber.  He sorted the problem for the equivalent of £25.00 and told me to give his explanation of what had gone wrong, written in scrappy Hebrew, to the iryah (i.e. the council) and all would be sorted.  I passed the note on to my lawyer, who indeed got it sorted, and from then on, for 18 months, I didn't receive any more water bills.

But why was I right, that it was a loose screw and not a rocket, when everyone else had assumed the worst? Because in my experience huge catastrophes often occur as a result of tiny problems that have been ignored and allowed to grow and grow. Israelis have known so many wars, boycotts and hatred from the rest of the world that they always assume the worst. On this occasion, what in normal circumstances would have been a simple issue of wear and tear had now escalated and – materially damaged the country's sacrosanct water preservation system.

This is what is happening now.

We are preparing for Pesach. When my daughter informed me on February 23 that the family was coming to stay for Pesach , I thought nothing about stocking up on extra toilet paper, kitchen roll, a mattress from a friend, and sorting out the books lying about everywhere, two lots having been bequeathed in his will by a rabbi friend and the other sent from someone who didn't have room in her house any more.

So on top of all the Pesach and normal cleaning, I had a lot of sorting to do – and sorting inevitably helps you to sort out your life. When I was dusting all the French books as part of Pesach cleaning one day, I came across two copies of Albert Camus' The Plague, which I had studied for A level.

Interesting, I thought, especially as the epidemic that started in one province of China has now spread rapidly around the globe, but Europe and North America especially.

Parallels have been drawn by some with the plague, known popularly as the Black Death, which, when it swept through Europe in the mid-14th century, eradicated between a third and a half of the continent's population.

Of course, the Jews were sadly blamed for this - something that was even encouraged by the Church, although no Jews actually lived in England (having been drowned in the Wash on orders of King Edward I who expelled them in 1290).

It was nonsensical to blame the Jews because most great rabbis of the past were also doctors and often advised Muslim caliphs and Christian monarchs on medical matters as well as on affairs of state - the Jewish approach has always been that health and wellbeing overrides every other criterion, including for instance Shabbat observance.

The great early mediaeval Babylonian Gaonim, who were the first pioneers in learned interpretations of Bible and Talmud, insisted in their many responsa that wherever the biblical text appeared to contradict the findings of contemporary science and medicine, it was science and medicine that had to be followed. They saw no contradiction in that – after all many of these great religious sages were learned in science and medicine, as well as in philosophy, linguistics and theology, and many cured members of their own communities, as well as others.

So, in Judaism there has never been a problem between science and religion. And this is partially explicable through strict laws on daily living set down in order to avoid as best as possible unnecessary damage to self, others, animals, the vegetable kingdom and the earth.

One of these laws, which has been thoroughly misunderstood, not least in this country, is shechita, a set of laws which make it clear that mixing raw and cooked meats together is not a good idea, and that special emphasis should be laid on preventing blood from coming into the food cycle. The Talmud lays down for gentiles the seven Noachide laws which include 'not tearing an animal limb by limb' and generally encourages people to show respect towards the animal kingdom. 

But what about the concept of plague itself? As you all know, the Exodus story surrounding the festival of Pesach (which this year takes place on the evening of April 8 for eight days), encompasses 10 plagues, starting with 'dam' – blood - which according to my Jewish beliefs is interpreted as a reminder that if we wish to get rid of our pagan selves, we should never eat blood. 

But in any case, the Biblical plagues continue in ascending order of severity, as if still giving us a chance to get things right every step of the way.

The penultimate plague of darkness is so severe that the Bible describes it as tangible – an overwhelming physical presence. This type of darkness has often been described as depicting the blackest of depressions – as if the Bible were teaching us that plagues are not merely physical afflictions but also affect our entire being, our moods, our spirits, our very existence.

And yet here is the rub: it was my 5-year-old granddaughter who gave me a lesson in what the plagues really are the last time the family were here for Pesach.

I asked her in Hebrew what she could tell me about the '10 plagues', which in Hebrew are 'eser makot'.

She looked at me sternly and said 'asur la-hakot yeladim afilu paam 'achat', which means 'hitting children even once is not allowed'.

What has that got to do with the plague, you might wonder?

Well, 'hakot' itself doesn't actually mean 'plagues'.  Rather, it is a verb meaning to hit or strike a blow to something. It is this verb that then forms the root of the Hebrew word 'makot', meaning 'plagues'.  What my granddaughter had done was to correctly identify the link between the two. 

And in case you are still wondering what all this means, it means that a plague is essentially something that hits us unexpectedly when the signs were already there and we did nothing about it.  It may not even be 'our fault' – directly that is. Indirectly is another matter...

But one thing we cannot ask is why G-d has done this to us. We do not know His thoughts and the Bible, especially Deuteronomy 30, tells us that 'it [i.e. the solution to our problems] is not in heaven ... nor is it beyond the sea'.

On the contrary, 'The matter is very close to you, in your mouth and your heart, so that you can carry it out.'

I have always interpreted these verses to mean that we have the solution to a problem or crisis within us if we have the will and the wherewithal to carry it out. And this teaches us, as Shabbat's sedra imparted to us (for the first time in history at home, as Shuls are closed) that a collective is more than a jumble of people, it is a community for whom the entire universe must be meaningful and worthy of eternal vigilance and respect.

For if the balance intended by G-d's creation of the world is altered even infinitesimally every micro-second, then the blows will eventually, and sometimes after a very long period of time, rain down on us and hit us in unexpected ways, just like that faulty solar panel in Haifa, August 2006.

But in addition to this, it is important to remember that to be a disciple is to affirm that we are not in control, that there is a Greater One than us, and that we are to adjust how we live and act accordingly.

Between last Shabbat and the one coming up, there is a break in Biblical readings, as we progress from the end of the Book of Exodus to the beginning Book of Leviticus, which deals with how we can as a community turn ourselves into a kingdom of priests and a holy people - a calling that doesn't change no matter how chaotic our surroundings may become.

However, in between the reading of two biblical books, we traditionally say something that I think can also be of help here: 

'Chazak, chazak, ve-nitchazek.' 

Which essentially means this: 'be strong and of good cheer – you can do it and we will overcome in the end.'

Indeed, we must continue to hope for the best.

Let's finish with some relevant quotes from Camus' post-war allegory, La Peste, which is really about all of us – and which won its author the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955, the second-youngest recipient in history.  After all these years, how relevant his book still is.

"I have no idea what's awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing."

"I know that man is capable of great deeds. But if he isn't capable of great emotion, well, he leaves me cold."

"What's true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves."

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.