Sermon – Plague Island (Andrew Gellert)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 25 January 2021

That is how the international press referred to Britain when the UK’s mutant virus and the tail-backs of lorries at ports made front-page news around the world on Dec 23.  Britain has certainly been hit very hard in recent weeks.


Amid the pain of the current turmoil, our Torah portions this week, and next, dealing with the plagues carry a particular resonance this year.


Recent soaring case numbers and deaths have caused us to feel that we in Britain have found ourselves in “Mitzraim” – a narrow place.


In today’s Parashah, Va’Eira, God says to Moses:


לָכֵ֞ן אֱמֹ֥ר לִבְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֘ אֲנִ֣י יְהֹוָה֒ וְהֽוֹצֵאתִ֣י אֶתְכֶ֗ם מִתַּ֨חַת֙ סִבְלֹ֣ת מִצְרַ֔יִם…


“Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Eternal.  I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage”…


This is a powerful message of hope and redemption. In fact, the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks hailed Va’Eira and the Exodus story as the world’s “greatest meta-narrative of hope”.


It must indeed be a source of hope that humanity has been ravaged by, and yet survived, pandemics and epidemics over the millennia.


In December, at Limmud online, Professor Jonathan Sarna, Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, spoke about the yellow fever epidemics that struck Memphis in 1873 and 1878 when one third of the city’s population perished.  Immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe, who had only been there for a decade and so had no immunity,  died in large numbers.

In his lecture Professor Sarna made a number of important points including:

  1. Pandemics and epidemics lay bare social and political weaknesses in society
  2. They leave a human and economic toll
    3. They pose important challenges to leaders

Most pandemics burn themselves out.  The Memphis epidemics ended when frosts killed off the mosquitoes that carried the virus.  Although vaccines have helped eradicate diseases like smallpox, Covid is likely to be the first pandemic to be ended by the visionary, scientific intervention of human beings – through a vaccine.


Plagues discriminate.

In Memphis, the city’s elite did not invest in a sewage system for the poor, who lived by the water.  The wealthy paid a price for their parochial self-centredness because the mosquitoes carrying the yellow fever virus, the perhaps persuasively named “Aedes Aegypti”, had a field day reproducing in the fetid, stagnant waters but bit all Memphis residents, though the poor, as always, suffered disproportionately.


In the UK, Alyth’s own Professor Sir Michael Marmot has spoken in one of the earliest Alyth zoom lockdown lectures of the unequal death toll from Covid in the UK: Sir Michael highlighted the fact that England’s excess death rate linked to COVID-19 has been the highest in Europe, and the more deprived the local authority, the higher the COVID-19 death rate.


Plagues discriminate, but Rabbi Sacks wrote that he believed justice was and should be universal.  He wrote that the Exodus story relates how the supreme Power entered history to liberate the supremely powerless. We too must must play our part in helping to attain that freedom and justice for all.


So what lessons can we take from pandemics?

There are striking parallels between Pharaoh’s Egypt, Memphis and Covid today. In all three, precautions and challenges which could have helped reduce the death rate were not faced in advance by some political leaders.  In all three, community and religious leaders, including our own at Alyth,  have shone.


Yes the Exodus story is the world’s greatest meta-narrative of hope:  and our own cherished hope today is that we can end the pandemic through medical science and pursue universal justice by disseminating that hope and that science.


Documents recall how Rabbi Max Samfield, the liberal rabbi who worked tirelessly across all communities in the yellow fever epidemics of Memphis, was and  is still celebrated.   He took in orphans, gave people hope and turned an horrific experience into something positive.  There followed a movement to clean up the city, and create a social safety network.

Jewish teaching unequivocally embraces scientific advancements that save lives – the principle of Pikuach Nefesh, the preservation of life, is, after all, supreme.  It struck me that there is a symmetry between our situation and Egypt’s plagues, in that the Supreme Being could be said to have carried out the first “vaccinations” of all time by marking out the doorposts of Israelite homes in Egypt so that the angel of death would pass over them.  I submit that it is not only advisable that we take the vaccine when it is offered to us, but I would say it is our solemn duty to ourselves and to each other to do so, unless we are advised that there is an individual medical reason not to.  Vaccines have often been put forward as, arguably, the single greatest gift that medicine has bestowed on humanity.  Let’s rejoice that we have them.


We can also rejoice in the values of British academic institutions – the coronavirus vaccine produced by Oxford University and AstraZeneca will be made available on a non-profit basis and in perpetuity to low and middle income countries.   That embodies the universality of justice to which Rabbi Sacks referred.  Selina and I were therefore honoured to have been accepted as volunteers some months ago as participants in the Oxford vaccine trial’s over- 60’s cohort.  We still don’t know if we were given the real vaccine or a control vaccine but they will break the code for us when the time comes for us to be offered a formal NHS vaccine.


As Brian said in the introduction to the Haftarah, as human beings, we have the gift of free will. Va’Eira teaches we can choose to free ourselves from bondage.  Bill Gates wrote in The Economist last August that history doesn’t necessarily follow a set course and yet he wondered if the years after 2021 might resemble the years after 1945 and World War II.  It was a time to hope.  He felt the best analogy for today might be November 10th 1942.  Britain had just won its first land victory of the war and Winston Churchill famously declared in a speech: “This is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”


As we enter the new secular year, we have great cause to go forward with hope. No other generation in history has had the gift of a vaccine to facilitate its exit from a pandemic and so from Mitzraim – a narrow place. We have that gift and must embrace and celebrate it.


Shabbat Shalom.