Is God self-isolating?

You find that whenever Israel is enslaved, so too is the Divine Presence enslaved: it is written [as part of the Exodus narrative], “And they saw the God of Israel, and under God’s feet, it was like a work of sapphire bricks.” [Just as the Israelites were engaged in making bricks, so too was the Eternal One engaged in making bricks.]
Mechilta d’Rabbi Ishmael, Pis-cha 14

When the Israelites were enslaved, God was enslaved.

“Was enslaved.” משועבדת. It’s a passive participle. It definitely means that God was enslaved.

The Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians, as we know. So who enslaved God?

God enslaved Godself. It’s the only explanation. When the Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians, God decided not to remain aloof and above it all, but instead to suffer alongside our ancestors – so God began to make bricks.

I find this rabbinic idea fascinating. Slavery in Egypt? God makes bricks. What would God have been doing during other periods of Jewish history? The York massacre? The expulsion from Spain? The Shoah?

A lot of people are wondering about (or questioning) God’s role in the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this month, I took part in an online panel where several of my teachers and I discussed that very question.

On reflection, I think the simple answer might be the rabbis’ one: When Israel is enslaved, so too is the Divine Presence enslaved. When humanity is self-isolating, so too is God self-isolating. God is in self-isolation.

But why would the rabbis have write themselves a God who seems so helpless? Ultimately, I think it’s all about creating stories that are good stories. A truly three-dimensional character requires a ‘sparring partner’: a character is no character in a vacuum, and it’s only through their relationships with others that we get a sense of what they’re like.

The Greek myths were able to call upon a large (and, where necessary, expandable) pantheon of miscellaneous gods to be these ‘other personalities’. Greek gods were always having dramas amongst themselves. But Judaism only had the Israelites. The Bible and the rabbinic texts have Jews quibbling with and disempowering God, because the Jews needed God to be quibbled with, and there were no other gods to do the quibbling.

A fallible God might not be God according to the strictest definitions of Jewish theology, and yet an infallible God cannot be God according to the emotional needs of Jews as human beings. We need Someone to identify with. Within the Jewish narrative, God created humans; outside of it, Jews created God. It is a relationship in the fullest sense of that phrase.

So, God and self-isolation… Doesn’t that ruin the relationship?

Yet, why shouldn’t God be feeling lonely at the moment? We’re all missing the companionship we get from our regular gatherings in community settings. That’s also when God gets to interact with humanity. Zoom is an important stand-in and a valuable way of connecting with each other in these strange times, but it’s not a real substitute. Similarly, just as we can pray individually or using Skype or FaceTime, perhaps it’s no substitute. It suffices, it keeps the relationship open, but if it doesn’t relieve us of the sense of being marooned, maybe it doesn’t relieve God either.

These strange times call for patience and compassion – and just as God’s conception of suffering is one that runs both ways, so too should our patience and compassion.

Insert plague joke here (the Pesach special 5780)

These are extraordinary times, so the traditional Pesach News from the Biblical Broadcasting Organisation has been cancelled, and in its place, for those of you who are going ahead with sedarim virtual or in-real-life, Gabrielquotes Publishing Ltd Co.UK hereby presents:

Foreword

At moments of crisis, Jews (and Brits, indeed) crack jokes. Despite the chaos going on around us, Pesach is still a time for joy and happiness and I invite you to read on to enjoy some lighthearted fun-poking about our current state of quarantine.

If you disagree with this approach, and think that every smile at such a serious subject is inappropriate, that’s fine too. Just don’t read on. Reading this blog post is optional.

Front matter

A traditional haggadah starts with instructions on how to find and burn any chametz. Since, this year, any search for chametz will be impossible due to the fact that every square inch of your floor is filled with toilet roll and pasta, we’ll skip over that and move straight on to…

Order of seder

  • Neirot (candles)
  • Urchatz (washing)
  • Kaddeish (misspelt kiddush)
  • Urchatz (washing)
  • Karpas (multi-storey)
  • Urchatz (washing)
  • Yachatz (pro-Israel, pro-peace)
  • Urchatz (washing)
  • Lachma (misspelt lechem)
  • Urchatz (washing)
  • Arba’ah (Latin for ‘tree’)
  • Urchatz (washing)
  • Haggadah (Inception style nesting of a book-within-a-book)
  • Urchatz (washing)
  • Pesach (Inception style nesting of a festival-within-a-festival)
  • Urchatz (washing)
  • Matzah (Latin for ‘cardboard’)
  • Urchatz (washing)
  • Maror (hoarse radish)
  • Urchatz (washing)
  • Koreich (rebelled against Moses in the desert)
  • Urchatz (washing)
  • Shulchan Oreich (sort of Jewish law book thing)
  • Urchatz (washing)
  • Tzafun (find the afikomen, rewards available)
  • Urchatz (washing)
  • Bareich (cheers Mate)
  • Urchatz (washing)
  • Hallel (We’d love to stay but the kids really need to go to bed now)
  • Urchatz (washing)
  • Nirtzah (byeeeee)
  • Urchatz (washing)
  • Urchatz (washing)
  • Urchatz (washing)
  • Erm…
  • That’s it.

Kaddeish

The leader raises the 60% alcohol handrub and says:

We praise You, Creator of the fruit of the aahhh the top wasn’t on it’s all in my eye and it stings and it cost £14!

Karpas

All take a piece of green herb, lean to the left (if at a Jewdas seder, to the far left), dip it in the nearest saline drip, and eat.

Yachatz

The leader breaks the middle matzah and replaces one half. The other half is taken away and hidden carefully so that if things get really bad in a few months’ time at least there’ll be a snack available.

Arba’ah

The youngest person recites, to a well-known tune:

Why is this night unlike other nights,
Unlike other nights? Unlike other nights?

For on regular nights we are all in the room
But now we are on Zoom; but now we are on Zoom –
For tonight is the night, yes tonight is the night
We break the stereotype:
For tonight is the night, yes tonight is the night
We celebrate by Skype.

For on regular nights peace and quiet is our goal
But now it’s toilet roll! But now it’s toilet roll!
For tonight is the night, yes tonight is the night
We stockpile our two-ply:
For tonight is the night, yes tonight is the night
We go out and panic-buy.

For on regular nights you could not make us beg
For salt-water and an egg; for salt-water and an egg –
But tonight is the night, yes tonight is the night
We count that as a thrill:
For tonight is the night, yes tonight is the night
We just hope not to get ill.

For on regular nights we would welcome a guest
But now they’d just infest! But now they’d just infest!
For tonight is the night, yes tonight is the night
We mistrust those who cough:
For tonight is the night, yes tonight is the night
That Elijah can p*ss off.

In the vein of some more modern haggadot, we also include four more modern questions that contemporary readers may have about this time of year:

  • Is it permissible to livestream a seder?
  • Do kosher shops actually have any idea of the prices that other places charge for food?
  • Do pigeons wonder what the f**k is going on at the moment?
  • Just how many children does Boris Johnson have?

On which note…

We are told of a father who had four sons, so he is already in breach of the ‘no gatherings of more than two people’ rule. The first son was wise, the second was wicked, the third was simple and a bore (in the 1981 Liberal haggadah) or simple and filled with awe (in the 2010 Liberal haggadah), and the fourth was too young to ask.

What does the wise one say? “What is genome sequencing?” To this child, teach all the laws of Covid, even this difficult one, that we should all avoid social contact yet keep schools and universities open for a few more days.

What does the wicked one say? “I’m young so I’ll be fine.” Make him eat his words by saying to him, “Yeah I hear that but it’s kind of not really the right attitude, know what I mean?”

What does the simple one say? “What’s a Wuhan?” This child should be sat quietly in the corner with an iPad so you can get on with your videoconference with Mandy from Accounts. (Can you tell I’ve never had an actual job? -GKW.)

For the one who is too young to ask, you should let them enjoy their blissful ignorance as if they were a participant on German Big Brother.

Haggadah

Even if we were all healthy, all able-bodied and all symptom-free, it would still be our duty to stay at home and self-isolate.

This is the poor bread which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let anyone who is hungry come in and eat but only if they want pasta. This year we are quarantined; next year we will be free. Now we are socially-distanced; next year at a communal seder.

A story is told of four rabbis who sat together at a seder in B’nai Brak: Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Eleazar son of Azariah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfonwarehouse. All night they discussed the story of the Exodus, until finally their pupils came and said to them, “Masters! You should all be sitting at least 2m apart!”

Rabbi Eleazar son of Azariah said, “Behold, I am like a seventy-year-old man…” at which the other rabbis interrupted and said he should, like, go home and stay in lockdown until the autumn.

My father was a wandering Aramean, primarily because none of the countries would let him in after he’d been wandering.

The Israelites cried out to the Almighty, who redeemed them with a strong hand and an outstretched arm (outstretched to keep them at a reasonable distance).

As the seder reaches its height of topical irony, we turn our thoughts to plague, specifically to the ten plagues. As we name each one, we spill a drop of hand sanitiser onto our napkin:

  • Lack of blood tests
  • Panic buying
  • Zoom getting overloaded
  • Ibuprofen
  • Analogies to the Blitz
  • The easyJet helpline
  • Lack of statutory sick pay
  • Unmuted microphonal buzzing on conference calls
  • Running out of things to watch on Netflix
  • (the big one) Daily press briefings from Boris Johnson

And now we sing to another well-known tune:

If Boris kept us in Containment, only kept us in Containment,
And hadn’t started the Delay phase –
Dayeinu!

Dai-dai-einu, dai-dai-einu, dai-dai-einu, dayeinu, dayeinu (x2)

If Boris started the Delay phase, only started the Delay phase,
And hadn’t grounded most air traffic –
Dayeinu!

Dai-dai-einu…

If Boris grounded most air traffic, only grounded most air traffic,
And hadn’t cancelled mortgage payments –
Dayeinu!

Dai-dai-einu…

If Boris cancelled mortgage payments, only cancelled mortgage payments,
And hadn’t closed the pubs and restaurants,
Dayeinu!

Dai-dai-einu…

If Boris closed the pubs and restaurants, only closed the pubs and restaurants,
And hadn’t run out of ventilation,
Dayeinu!

The bits and bobs from the seder plate

Rabban Gamliel used to say: If, at Pesach, you have not bought these three things from Kosher Kingdom for £29 each, you have not fulfilled your obligation – Pesach, matzah and maror.

The leader holds up the shankbone and says:

Why do we have a shankbone on our seder plate? In the days when the Temple still stood, this was literally all that our ancestors could get their hands on from the midst of the scrum of Pesach shoppers.

The leader holds up a piece of matzah and says:

Why do we eat this unleavened bread? Because our ancestors were in a desperate situation with but limited supplies… oh no this is just too real.

All present take a piece of matzah, lean to the left, and try surreptitiously to drop it into their neighbour’s pocket because, food shortages or no food shortages, nobody needs this.

Next, the leader holds up the bitter herbs and says:

Why do we eat these bitter herbs? Because all that was left on the shelves of the Tesco Metro was one onion and a jar of Colman’s Horseradish Sauce.

Rabbi Hillel used to take a bitter herb, dip it in charoset (a thick apple paste traditionally made at this time of year because otherwise the apples that everyone for some reason stockpiled would rot) and eat them together between two pieces of matzah. He did this centuries before the 4th Earl of Sandwich stole the idea, typical anti-Semite really.

Next, the leader reaches for the burnt egg, sees there isn’t one, turns to their householders, and is told, “Nah. No way we’d waste a good egg.”

Tzafun

While the adults talk about serious, worldly topics, they send the children off to hunt around the house for that last pack of face-masks that Cousin Freda definitely put down somewhere.

Some fun table songs

Who knows thirteen-oh – Sh’loshah-asar mi yodea?
I’ll sing you thirteen-oh:
Thirteen weeks’ social distancing
And twelve billion for closed restaurants.
Eleven days of virtual meetings
And ten for the beds in hospital.
Nine are the cancelled A-levels
And eight pounds of statutory sick pay.
Seven days of household quarantine
And six days of online shacharit.
Five milligrams of ibuprofen
And four times you’ve watched that boxset.
Three, three, remaining cakes of soap.
Two, two, the sedarim, we’re missing both with kith and kin:
One is our last sheet of loo roll, let’s try to preserve it!

Nirtzah

The next few months really are going to be a bit of a trial for us all. It won’t be the first trial we’ve faced as Jews: the very first Pesach night, indeed, was done hurriedly, in each household, in great discomfort, without major family gatherings. Probably with indigestion.

Thinking of all those whose lives have been affected by the astonishing situation in which we find ourselves, and all the medical and support staff working to contain the situation, we can say with more spirit than usual:

Next year in a world redeemed.

And what’s more, even before next year, we will get our seder.

Chag sameach!