Back in late January and early February, as Jews in America and around the world read the weekly Torah portions that recounted the plagues inflicted on Pharaoh for refusing to liberate the enslaved Hebrews, the caseload for COVID-19 in the United States stood at a mere eight. The first ill person had been diagnosed less than two weeks earlier.
On the evening of April 8, American Jews gathered for the first seder of Pesach and again recounted the plagues. By the time these seders wearily concluded with the promise of "Next year in Jerusalem," the number of domestic COVID-19 cases had risen to more than 392,000. Some 85 Americans died on Passover eve, bringing the nation’s total to 1,286.
In retrospect, we all know that the increase during Pesach barely hinted at the global disaster to come. By now, the World Health Organization reports 210,338 deaths and nearly 7.5 million cases in the U.S. The nation of American exceptionalism is exceptional now for its failure to control a pandemic in any manner resembling most of Western Europe, or even Vietnam and Rwanda.
To find the answer why we should go back to that time of Biblical plagues and autocratic rule, to see what befalls a nation headed by a leader incapable of compassion or analysis: the Pharoah who "hardens his heart."
In the face of Moses’ entreaties to free the Jews, Pharaoh entrenches his obstinacy, serially "hardening his heart," with God hardening it as the severity of the plagues mount.
Pharaoh believes in his court magicians’ trickery rather than the demonstrated power of Moses’s God. Believing that he can inflict drawn-out suffering on the enslaved Hebrews, Pharaoh accomplishes the opposite: the final plague kills the firstborn in every Egyptian household, including his own.
Now to Donald Trump. He was blithe about the virus when, early in the outbreak, it was disproportionately striking his political foes – the deep blue states of New York, Washington, and California; Black and Latinx people around the country; immigrants from Africa and Central America toiling in infected meat-packing plants.
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The president seemed to view the disease as if it operated like a political campaign, a biological version of an attack ad, aimed specifically at his foes. So why interrupt? His own voters, of course, would be safe. They didn’t need the "feminizing" wimpiness of wearing a mask.
During the week linking the two Pharoah-plague readings from Exodus, Trump declared in a speech, "We think we have it very well under control. We have very little problem in this country at this moment…We think it’s going to have a very good ending for us...that I can assure you."
Most contemptible of all, as we now know from Bob Woodward’s book "Rage," Trump was already fully aware of the severity and the airborne transmission of COVID-19, life-saving information he hid from the nation.
On April 7, the day before the first night of Pesach, the president passingly admitted to the burgeoning caseload, and then went on to boast, "But signs are that our strategy is totally working. Every American has a role to play in winning this war. And we’re going to be winning it. We’re going to be winning it powerfully."
In between those two absurdly sunny presentations, Trump brought out the court magician.
In the shande fur di goyim department, the charlatan in question was a Hasidic doctor from the coronavirus epicenter of Kiryas Joel with a self-made reputation as a miracle healer thanks to the unproved drug combos he prescribed, which included the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine that Trump called a "game-changer." Reputable studies actually said the opposite: that the medication might endanger certain types of COVID-19 patients.
Undeterred, Trump metaphorically donned a cloak and turban – Johnny Carson doing a "Carnac the Magnificent" – to play the magician himself. On April 23, with the U.S. tally at 826,936 cases and 42,103 deaths, Trump announced the miracle cure of ingesting bleach or Lysol.
In a July interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, Trump offered another augury: "COVID-19 is going to disappear and I’ll be right."
Pharoah Don, always so ready to turn his Jewish relatives into political props, should have brushed up on his Exodus. Magic fails and plagues turn on their deniers.
The top 17 states in per capita COVID cases all voted for Trump in 2016, and most have Republican governors who parroted the president’s disparagement of settled science.
When Trump heedlessly, hubristically, held indoor rallies, lastly in Tulsa on June 20, COVID cases spiked soon after. Herman Cain, the pizza entrepreneur, former presidential candidate and Trump confidante, who attended that the Tulsa rally unmasked, died the following month.
And now the plague has struck Trump, his wife, his press secretary, his campaign manager, his party’s chairperson, his hate-whisperer Stephen Miller, and such political toadies as Chris Christie, to cite just an abbreviated list. Undeterred, President Trump reframed a lethal pandemic as a divine "blessing."
Jewish thinkers have wrestled over the centuries with how to interpret the Biblical text’s reiteration that after Pharoah hardened his own heart, God then hardened Pharaoh’s heart. But commentators – from Maimonides a millennium ago, to Nehama Leibowitz in more recent decades – have emphasized free will rather than divine orchestration as the source of Pharaoh’s malice and its nihilistic culmination.
Which brings us back to the Pharaoh of 2020 America. Trump let a disease bring misery and death onto those he despises in blue America, whether due to active hostility or what legal language refers to as "depraved indifference."
But hubris and cruelty are not containable: he also delivered ruin onto his own obedient worshippers in his beloved red states, and ultimately to his inner circle and his own household.
The story of Pharaoh’s hardened heart didn’t end with the death of the first-born Egyptians, nor with his begrudging acquiescence to the freedom of the Jews. It only ended after he led his army in pursuit and all were vanquished.
With a president is so eager to see providential signs and wonders in his mishandling of the pandemic, then, using the Bible as a guide, the fate for Trump and his cult followers is to march, maskless, all the way into the swirling waters of an electoral Red Sea on November 3.
Samuel G. Freedman is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and the author of eight books, including "Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry." Twitter: @SamuelGFreedman