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    This Passover, COVID-19 is the wicked son

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 8 April, 2020.

    The wise and wicked sons, as depicted in the Szyk Haggadah

    Wednesday evening, 8 April, is the beginning of the Jewish festival of Passover. The festival begins with the family gathering at home for the seder meal, which is interspersed with prayers, songs and readings from the Haggadah or Book of Narration.

    Early on is the section known as Mah Nishtanah — the “Four Questions” — asked by the youngest person present as the stimulus for the adults to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt and the Israelites’ emergence from slavery to freedom.

    Mah Nishtanah begins, “How different this night is from all other nights!”

    This Passover, the seder night is literally different. The mood is sombre, the attendance is limited, the social setting is only a dream. Because of the new plague, life is quite different.

    In good times we all yearned to be able to make a difference; this year it is the coronavirus that has made the difference: instead of freedom, there is fear; instead of peace, there is panic; instead of celebration, there is suspicion that normality will take time to return.

    One of the seder sections — another of a series of fours, along with four questions, four main foods, four types of freedom — is the four sons. It lists four human types who each confront the Passover tradition with their own challenge.

    To some it is a request for more information; for some it is a mocking sneer at the ancient ritual; for some a simple feeling of enjoyment; for some the inarticulate inability to find the words to sum it up.

    The second son is the rasha, the wicked one. This year’s rasha is the virus that is trying to undermine everything that people regard as important.

    It is interesting that the Haggadah never lets itself be derailed by the rasha. It restricts its nice, gentle, positive tone to the other three sons.

    To the wicked son it has a sharp answer. It tells the seder officiant, whoever it happens to be, “Be tough with him. Tell him that if this were ancient times his negativity would have impelled us to leave him behind in slavery and God would not have redeemed him.”

    In other years I would have stuck up for the rasha (Cecil Roth, the historian, in his edition of the Haggadah calls him “the petulant one”). I would have said that he has a mind of his own and we ought to debate and not deride him.

    But not this year. This year we have a wicked son who is worse than petulant and threatens to destroy the whole of human civilisation. There is only one way to handle him: to be tough — tough on him, giving him less and less leeway until we banish him completely, but also tough on ourselves, not losing our nerve or our faith.

    One of the most colourful seder personalities is the first son, the chacham, the wise son. This year we need him more than ever. His style is to seek guidance, and the Passover response is to give him chapter and verse of the story and the detailed information that tells him how to organise a seder and make it meaningful.

    This year we need the wise son not to ask but to tell us a few things.

    We need him to insist that, even in adverse circumstances, people have to keep their spirits up; even in adverse circumstances, people have to think about what really matters; even in adverse circumstances, people have to thank God for the gift of life; even in adverse circumstances, people have to care for each other.

    May humanity as a whole soon be free from the infectious, wicked son.

    #coronavirus #covid-19 #covid19

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