In 1947, still fresh from serving in the World War II French underground, Albert Camus completed his classic novel, The Plague. The story pictures a modern-day outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in the otherwise unremarkable Algerian city of Oran. The protagonist, Dr. Rieux, tends daily to the plague’s victims, until at last, having taken its toll, it passes.
“The tale he had to tell” the book concludes, “could not be one of final victory. It could be only the record of what had to be done and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never-ending fight against terror… by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.” At the end, Rieux learns two things: “that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good,” and that, with people, “There are more things to admire than to despise.”
Early on, Camus establishes another theme, “exile.” The plague-infested city of Oran is closed off to outsiders, and practically shut down to those who live there. People stay home, afraid to venture out. The government dithers; it won’t admit the situation’s severity; doctors and nurses lack vital equipment; hospitals run out of beds; corpses pile up; the sick and dying are housed in a football stadium. Sound familiar?
With the whole world apparently toppling, Camus pronounces the city’s inhabitants as living in exile.
Interpreters of The Plague sometimes see it as a parable for political oppression, the trueplague that returns with regularity, the Nazis being but the latest example. It can also be just what it says, however: an actual plague, like our Covid-19. In either case, whether medical or political, we are there now: a murderous virus is running rampant; we are unprepared; with a president who gives us no good reason to imagine that he understands the situation or would do the right and moral thing even if he did.
Sociologists define terror not simply as unimaginably bad things happening, but the sense that they happen without rhyme or reason, with no predictability, no way to know what tonight, tomorrow, or the very next hour will bring. The problem is, of course, the suffering and dying, the enforced loneliness and idleness, the stock market in free fall, the work we cannot do and the food we cannot get. But it is more: it is the irrationality of it all, the never knowing where the dreaded bacillus lurks: in the smile of a neighbor who passes too close beside us, perhaps; on a park bench that we inadvertently touch during risky morning walks. It is the terror of it all that never leaves us.
Camus was prophetic: we here face again what he called “the never-ending fight against terror”; and while we face it, we are indeed like exiles in a world that goes merrily on its newly twisted way without asking our permission or even notifying us in advance. Like The Plague’s Dr. Rieux, we are “unable to be saints, but, refusing to bow down to pestilence, we strive our utmost to be healers.”
But how can we be healers while a virus metastasizes through our streets like a sci fi nightmare, and we dare not read the morning news lest we be cruelly reminded of the political and moral morass of incompetence at the top? How can we be healers in exile?
Well, we Jews know a thing or two about that. Jewish history is precisely about exile. The theme of exile appears at our Bible’s very outset – Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, which we should see as dramatic foreshadowing for the Babylonian exile with which our entire biblical history virtually ends. The entire Bible in between is mostly about exile: Abraham and Sarah, driven from their comfortable home to a Land that God will show them; the announcement that even from their new home, their progeny will face a centuries-long exile; then Egypt itself. Exile is Israel’s master theme.
Yet our Bible doesn’t stop there. The final message is not the exile. It is Second Isaiah’s Nachamu, nachamu ami. “Take comfort, take comfort, my people”: words of healing! Enough is enough. The constrictions of exile will eventually open wide to the expansiveness of restoration, revival, recovery – so many words for healing!
Camus describes the Oran “exiles” as uncertain about their future, panicked over their present, and fixated on memories of the past. But he departs from the Jewish script when he concludes, “They came to know the incorrigible sorrow of all prisoners and exiles, which is to live with a memory that serves no purpose.” That’s where he is wrong. Memories can be precisely where we find our purpose in the first place.
If terror is the pure irrationality of it all, Jewish memory is the guarantee of a larger pattern beyond the immediate patternlessness. That larger pattern is not scientific so much as it is metaphysical, a matter of faith that Jews have managed to acquire because we take our historical memories seriously. Every Passover we review them: the calm but sobering lesson that every generation unleashes forces bent upon destroying us, but that in the end, we will prevail. Way back in 1964, Look magazine ran a famous article called “The Vanishing American Jew.” Well, we haven’t vanished; we’re still here; never mind that you can’t buy copies of Look anymore.
We become healers in exile when we champion our memories as models. In an unredeemed world, we say, there will always be recurrent exiles – for everyone, not just Jews. But exiles pass; restorations rise up in their place.
When we once again see friends whom we have missed for a very long time, Jewish liturgy has us say, Barukh atah Adonai, m’chayei hametim, “Blessed is God for reviving the dead.” Alas, in every exile, there are those who really die, those whom we will not see again. But this our history promises; this we know for sure: The Covid-19 exile will end; and we will say for so many others who emerge to greet us as they always did, “Barukh atah Adonai, m’chayei hametim, “Blessed is God for reviving the dead.”
Isaac Bashevis Singer is credited with saying, “We Jews have many faults; amnesia is not one of them.” We Jews love to remember, because these times of trial, these moments of plague and exile, are not the only things that come redundantly; so too do times of healing that follow. We were slaves in the Land of Egypt; but we found our way home. All America, all the world, is now enslaved. But we too will find our way home.