Opinion | This Year, a New Pharaoh Has Been Revealed

Egyptian pyramids in sand desert and clear sky
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By Rabbi Jason Bonder

In these times of social distancing, I have been thinking a great deal about John Locke’s analogy of a man unknowingly trapped in his room.

The man sitting in the room thinks that he has decided to stay in his room, but he had never tried to leave. So while we know he’s trapped inside, he thinks he is there by his own free will. So? Is he truly free?

If I were to anachronistically fit the coronavirus into Locke’s analogy, coronavirus would play the role of a person over a loudspeaker saying, “Hey, buddy! I’m not sure if you realize this, but the reality is that you are trapped in that room!”

One of my most unexpected realizations of these past few weeks while staying at home is noticing how much of it feels normal. Spending hours per day staring into a screen isn’t that much of a radical departure from my normal routine. But now that I’m forced to do it, I’m finally realizing how challenging this is.

Yesterday on a run through a neighborhood very close to mine, I noticed how almost every house had a beautiful basketball hoop in the driveway. I’ve run through that neighborhood hundreds of times and never paid much attention to it. But suddenly, for the first time, I thought to myself, why is there a need for each of them to have their own hoop? Doesn’t that disrupt the natural socialization we need as human beings? Wouldn’t it be healthier for the neighborhood kids to congregate at one hoop?

I think that my generation may be the guy in Locke’s analogy. We have been stuck in the room without realizing it.

With Passover here, I’m beginning to realize that the Pharaoh of this generation has been hidden. Instead of sending us taskmasters and extra work, this Pharaoh has sent us numerous gifts with one thing in common — screens.

We in the Jewish community have been discussing the decline of “synagogues with walls” for decades now. We have asked why the young people of this generation are choosing to find community online. Perhaps it wasn’t as much of a choice as we thought. Perhaps we have, to a certain degree, lost a bit of freedom in our lives.

There is no doubt in these difficult times that we are seeing the upside of the internet. We are seeing the power of staying connected digitally in the absence of physical interaction.

Nevertheless, let’s not forget that this time is also showing us how important it is to be in the same room with one another when it is safe to do so. The echoes in a Zoom chat room can’t replace the echoes of beautiful music off the walls of a sanctuary. Waving to one another on FaceTime cannot supplant the warmth of an embrace.

In our times of greatest joy and greatest sorrow, nothing says “I’m here for you” like actually being there for someone in that very room. Jewish tradition tells us that in each generation we must see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt. Perhaps, ironically, our path to liberation in this generation requires a return to the physical synagogue — a return to the brick and mortar.

Rabbi Jason Bonder
Rabbi Jason Bonder (Courtesy of Rabbi Jason Bonder)

Rabbi Jason Bonder is the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen.

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