Modern Pesach plagues: AIDS, violence, hunger, anti-Semitism link to Exodus story today

Few Egyptians, Jews or Americans worry today about attacks by frogs, invasions of wild beasts or mass slaughter of first-born sons.

This Pesach, as we leave a trail of purplish wine droplets on our finest china and recite the 10 plagues against the Egyptians, we're reminded, however, that plagues still surround us.

AIDS. Breast cancer. Poverty. Greed. Bigotry. Racism. Gun proliferation. Alienation. Domestic abuse. Hunger.

While guests at Wednesday night's seder may shrug off frogs, wild beasts and locusts with a snicker, it's harder to turn away from the modern scourges. Reminders are everywhere — in the news, in our buses, on our streets.

The names of the plagues may have changed but we are still afflicted.

The concept of plague "evokes something out of our control which blindly destroys many people and which we are powerless to," explains Rabbi Amy Eilberg, director of Kol Haneshama, Jewish Hospice Care.

Topping her list are AIDS and breast cancer.

"Social plagues don't click for me. Plague suggests to me something which comes from outside of us," she says.

But AIDS and breast cancer, she adds, "feel like true epidemics which have completely overwhelmed our communities. They are terrifying and other-worldly and destroy so many lives."

Ron Wilmot is battling one of those plagues. He was diagnosed HIV-positive 16 years ago.

A member of Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in San Francisco, Wilmot is a volunteer for Jewish Family and Children's Services "Putting a Face to AIDS" speakers bureau.

His T-cell count is 5. A person is classified as having AIDS when his or her blood T-cell count dips below 200.

Although Wilmot's AIDS-related infections have been "pesky rather than life threatening," he says he'd nevertheless "call it a plague. But in that vein, there have been other plagues in our time — TB, polio, influenza."

Plagues, he says, are "the way of the world; they're obstacles…Some come from organisms; some are created by humans.

"I don't think the plagues we have are foisted on us to punish, challenge or test us. But we are challenged and tested by them…Expanding the definition I'd include bigotry, the Holocaust and greed."

Like Wilmot, Dr. Ami Goodman also lists ills that are both medical and metaphoric. A pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco, he is most concerned by their effects on children.

"Poverty, illness and hunger exist among children worldwide. It's all so unnecessary, so easily preventable ," Goodman says.

"The other plague is a real feeling of powerlessness in the face of this suffering, which leads to indifference."

Rabbi Andrew Straus of Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame agrees, referring to the plagues he calls "me-ism and today-ism."

"Look at our country. Everyone wants to know, `How is this going to affect me? How is this good for me?' — rather than how it affects society as a whole," he says. "No one is thinking of the long-term implications."

On a more tangible level, Straus also lists such plagues as gun proliferation, domestic abuse and lack of respect in all types of human relationships. Tracy Salkowitz, regional director of the American Jewish Congress, also adds violence, alienation and poverty to the list.

"The number one plague is the mood of this country," she says, and the growth of mean-spirited politics. Symptoms include the anti-immigration Proposition 187, the rise of the religious right, gay-bashing and assaults on affirmative action.

"The lid to Pandora's Box has slipped out of position.

"Racism is a little more acceptable. Immigrants are being denied basic human rights. People [are] looking for answers, a scapegoat to lash out against."

While definitions of modern pestilence vary, most people agree that however one interprets the cause of the plagues in Exodus, contemporary plagues are not a test or punishment from God.

In addition, although today's ills can evoke a sense of hopelessness, some see them as a call to religious and social action, adding new dimensions to the Passover story.

"I don't believe in a God with a big hand coming down and changing nature," Straus says . "I would say the plagues [in Egypt] were naturally occurring events. Timing, and the way that they were perceived by authors [of the Bible], made them understood as punishments."

But, in many ways, a people that lacks compassion brings punishments upon itself, now and in the past, he notes.

"The other piece is realizing the first several plagues were avoidable but the Pharaoh hardened his heart. When we harden our hearts to those around us, we have plague."

Eilberg adds: "The Pesach story gives us guidance about Jewish response to illness, suffering and vulnerability. The response is Jews coming together in community, in ritual, in eternal forms, structures and practices which are observed communally."

In that vein, Wilmot says, plagues can lead to new possibilities.

"HIV has been a positive in my life because it's given me a wisdom I'm not sure I would have acquired otherwise, and allowed me to really focus on my priorities," he says.

"I've watched lifelong friends die in huge numbers. But I've also realized that every single minute of every day is precious and a gift from God. I love being alive every minute — some minutes more than others, of course. The plague of HIV allowed me that awareness."