Scholars debate how long the 10 plagues lasted in Egypt, with estimates ranging from one month or slightly less up to a full year. But however much time the whole thing took, most agree that there were likely intervals during which there was no evidence on the ground of the calamity befalling Egypt. Days, perhaps weeks, went by when the Nile’s waters ran clean, the frogs stayed in their homes and the locusts subsided, when physical and psychological despair would not have seemed so imminent. In a time of crisis, the official Egyptian response was to pretend the signs weren’t there, to act as if nothing had changed.
Meanwhile, so the story goes, the Jews were planning for the future. They recognized, with the help of strong leadership, that things were indeed changing. Amid the darkness, literal and figurative, they could see the light.
Passover emphasizes change in lasting and literal ways. We change our dishes and what we eat (much to the dismay of our digestive systems, but we do it anyway). Our children, in their marquee performance of the festival, point out the changes spread out before them on the seder table. We even tolerate matzah. And we do these things year after year after year in order to focus our attention on the power of change, for our ancestors in Egypt as well as for us in these times. We do it to remind ourselves to make change part of the routine of Jewish life.
(Even in the Jewish state, where after three elections in a year it seemed to many that things were right back where they started, political change is finally in the air. But amid the deadlock, Israeli officials were clear-sighted enough to recognize the dangers of the coronavirus and enact dramatic social changes to curtail its effects, in many cases weeks before other western countries followed the same path. That kind of forward thinking is saving Jewish lives today.)
By now, I think all of us realize we are living in a time of massive change. Things are moving quickly and all of us are affected. There is little doubt that, whenever we re-emerge from this phase of social distancing and isolation, the world will be a profoundly different place. Our community should begin preparing.
Now is the time for big ideas, for trying new things and experimenting with what community means for Canadian Jewry. The imperative of online connection is just one obvious example, but it has ramifications far and wide – from synagogues to schools to startups. The financial impact of the pandemic is also affecting Jewish businesses and fundraising, further necessitating the need for a change in thinking and direction. It may be hard to see at the moment, but how we respond now could come to define our community for a generation or more.
The good news is that Canadian Jewish organizations, big and small, are already reacting powerfully to this crisis, lending a hand with food for the needy and loans for those facing uncertain financial futures. Amid the gloom of the last few weeks, it has been inspiring to read CJN reports about the many Jewish groups and individuals stepping up to the plate (and there are more in this week’s edition), delivering groceries to those who can’t pick them up themselves, teaching kids via Zoom, lending support on social media – while they try to sort out their own lives at the same time.
It suggests that our community is well-positioned for the changes in the air. Now we have to put in the work to make it happen.