(RNS) — If Sophocles or any of the other great Greek tragedians were alive today, they would be feverishly at work on a new play.
That play would take place in the White House, and there would be a veritable Greek chorus in the background — simply reading the news.
What was the driving force behind Greek tragedy? What ultimately felled all Greek tragic heroes?
The sin of hubris — excessive pride and defiance of the gods.
That was my first thought this morning, as I awoke to the news that President Trump and the first lady, following the president’s adviser, Hope Hicks, had been diagnosed with COVID-19.
The culprit, I thought, was not the microbe itself.
It was his, and his administration’s, excessive pride and arrogance.
They had mocked the wearing of masks and the necessity of social distancing.
They had openly and willfully defied science, medicine and common sense.
It serves them right, many are saying — especially those who would wish for the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to be filling out change-of-address cards.
Since we started with a Greek term, let’s remember a German one: schadenfreude.
Most of my friends and readers know my political leanings.
Nevertheless, I find the responses of many of my co-religionists and my political allies to be troubling.
To be blunt: Many of my Jewish friends — even Orthodox Jewish friends — are smiling.
Wrong. Stop it.
But, wait, you will say: Look at Judaism. Look at how the Torah responds to those who engage in morally devious activities.
Yes, but …
There is that voice in the Jewish tradition that decrees that people get what they deserve. It is called middah k’neged middah, or what Shakespeare called “measure for measure.”
Or, if you prefer: karma is a ________.
Jacob deceives his father, Isaac, by masquerading as his brother, Esau, when the old man is blind, lying on his deathbed.
Sometime later, his father-in-law and uncle, Laban, will do the same thing to Jacob, substituting Laban’s less attractive Leah for Rachel in the darkness of Jacob’s wedding night.
The Egyptians threw Israelite babies into the Nile. Years later, the Nile would turn to blood, and Egyptian soldiers would drown in the Red Sea.
Anger, vengeance, snark — it is all there in the Jewish tradition.
The railing against Haman on Purim. The appalling anti-gentile attitudes in the traditional liturgy. Even and especially, the desire for vengeance against Germany that some Jews entertained in the wake of the Shoah.
But, I hasten to say that this is the dark side of the Jewish tradition.
That dark side — the mocking of our enemies, the desire for revenge — rose to the surface during times of Jewish persecution. It was all that a powerless people could do.
But, let us ask ourselves.
Is this really who we are? Is this really who we want to be?
Here comes the “Yes, but …”
“When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him. When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him,” says the Book of Exodus.
Human nature would dictate: This is my enemy! I couldn’t care less about his personal property! No — you must conquer those impulses that would have you “refrain from raising it,” and you must nevertheless help him.
Or, the words of the prophet Ezekiel: “Is it my desire that a wicked person shall die?, says the Eternal GOD. It is rather that he shall turn back from his ways and live.”
Or, the words of the Book of Proverbs: “If your enemy falls, do not exult; if he trips, let your heart not rejoice. … Do not say, ‘I will do to him what he did to me; I will pay the man what he deserves.’”
Or, the classic text from the Talmud regarding the drowning of the Egyptians at the Red Sea: “At that time the ministering angels desired to recite a song before the Holy One, Blessed be He. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to them: ‘My handiwork’ — i.e., the Egyptians — ‘are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a song before Me?’”
Which is the “majority” opinion among Jews? It depends — on the period of history; on the societal context — and even on the personal inner life of the Jew in question.
Let me say what particularly troubles me about those who snicker at the illness in the White House — especially those who are Jews, and even devout Jews.
Five days ago — five days ago! — on Yom Kippur, we sat at our screens and prayed that God would help us raise ourselves above our baser instincts.
We prayed for the ability to conquer the yetzer ha-ra, the evil impulse, within us.
We prayed for the ability to imitate God, Who is el rachum v’chanun, compassionate and gracious.
How quickly we forget. How quickly we betray what we, ourselves, in our best moments, know to be the way of God and the way of the holy.
So, what will I pray this Shabbat?
We pray for all those afflicted with COVID 19 — and we especially pray for the healing of our president and first lady. We pray for health and protection for all our leaders who have been exposed to this grievous, destructive malady — a malady that respects neither person nor position nor power.
It is more than tempting to play politics with this. Human nature would have us say, like fifth graders: “Nya, nya …”
It is doubtless ironic that a man who has denied the power of this pandemic has now fallen victim to it.
But, even and especially for those who would like President Trump to lose — let it not be too much to say:
Let him lose the election.
But, not his life.