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On being struck by lightning

I was struck by lightning this week. There was a flash and a loud bang, and the plane I was on lurched to one side. I briefly wondered about a missile attack but as the plane continued in an upward trajectory, I figured it was not yet time to pronounce my final shema. For the frequent flyers among you this is doubtless commonplace, but I had to google when safely back in Israel to understand that aeroplanes are designed to withstand bolts of lightning.

There are two prayers which I should have said that night. The traveller’s prayer, Tefilat haderekh, is to be recited at the onset of a journey, to secure safe passage. It includes the appeal: “May You rescue us from the hand of every foe and ambush, from robbers and wild beasts on the trip, and from all manner of punishments that assemble to come to earth.” I guess lightning strikes can be included amongst the latter. And the other which may have helped is the Hashkivenu prayer, a bedtime prayer familiar to us from the evening liturgy. At night we ask God to help us lie down in peace and get up again the next morning, in other words, to survive the terrors of the night: “Shield us from every enemy: plague, sword, famine, and sorrow.”

Right now our fear of plague is at least as much diurnal as it is nocturnal, as we try to come to terms with the Corona virus. Thanks to the advances of science we know better today how it spreads, and measures we can take to prevent or ameliorate its transmission. There have many plagues in history, we know several from the Bible, but perhaps none more so than the Black Death, that killed at least 75 million people between 1347 and 1351. Thought to originate in China, it is likely that it spread along the merchant routes on the fleas borne by black rats.

In Europe, which bore of the brunt of the fatalities, Jewish communities were blamed for bringing the plague and, in the midst of its ravages, suffered persecution from their neighbours. Why blame the Jews? Because they were perceived as being immune to the plague, dying in fewer numbers than in the non-Jewish population. This may or may not have been true, but if it were, it is hypothesized that perhaps Jewish law had equipped them with higher hygiene standards e.g. in the need to wash hands, or that even the annual Passover spring clean had made their homes less attractive to the black rats, and hence less plague-ridden as a result.

Whatever the reason, a scapegoat was required, and led to a series of massacres across Europe. These included the Valentine’s Day Massacre in Strasbourg on 14th February 1349, when 2000 Jews were burnt alive. That same spring the Jewish community in Frankfurt were annihilated, and along the Rhine in Speyer and Mainz and Cologne the communities were all but destroyed. It’s one of the reasons why so many Ashkenazi Jews today come from Poland but have German names. To escape the pogroms they headed east to Poland, where King Kazimierz the Third welcomed them and protected them as “people of the king”.

We have many things to fear in life, but nonetheless we should try to continue our daily lives without giving in to these terrors. Just as we have adjusted to airport screening to prevent terrorist attacks, so now it looks like temperature screening will be with us for a while. And just as the former wouldn’t help us survive a lightning bolt, so too the latter won’t do much to help us against the myriad of dangers that exist in the world, against which we can only guard against on a wing and a prayer.

It’s another reason to gather for a minyan and to say our prayers, and I salute you all for coming together this morning to ensure the continuity of our UHC weekly minyan. We don’t stop needing to be together in a time of crisis. Nor do we stop honouring and mourning our loved ones and saying Kaddish in all but the most extreme of circumstances. With all that said, you know that I won’t be visiting Singapore as planned next week. It was a tough decision to make and I feel something of a coward - hiding behind my son. I am mostly worried not from the effects of the corona virus, but rather that my wife would kill me if I brought it back and infected Noam. Jokes aside, I hope very much to see you all soon and be back in Singapore in early March. And as lightning doesn’t strike twice, that’s one less thing to worry about as I recite my tefilat haderekh before setting out.

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