The Bible Says What? ‘Pharaoh was the first anti-vaxxer’

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The Bible Says What? ‘Pharaoh was the first anti-vaxxer’

Rabbi Rebecca Birk takes a controversial topic from Jewish texts and looks at a progressive Jewish response

The Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine at Falls Surgery on the Falls Road, Belfast, after injections of the coronavirus vaccine started in Northern Ireland GP practices on Monday.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine at Falls Surgery on the Falls Road, Belfast, after injections of the coronavirus vaccine started in Northern Ireland GP practices on Monday.

One of the strangest things over the last year has been the doubters. From the flamboyant conspiracy theorists and the flagrant rejection of science to those resisting guidelines and safety measures, believing they know better. As a keen rule follower, I am intrigued as to why they believe what they do.

In the Torah, we read of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, even as he watches the 10 plagues ravage his people and country. Like today’s anti-vaxxers, he refused to respond to the suffering reality around him. 

As Dr Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg observed, “a kind of spiritual rigor mortis set in” for him. Pharaoh couldn’t empathise. This reminds me of what we have seen during ‘our’ plague of Covid-19. It’s striking that, so far, more than two million people have died around the world – and approaching 100,000 in the UK – yet many hearts remain hardened to this. So what’s an antidote to a hardened heart? 

The silent prayer at the end of the Amidah can give some encouragement. Mar bar Ravina, a fourth century sage wrote Patach Libi, Open My Heart (to Your Teaching). 

An open heart responds to learning. It responds to the news from the Covid wards, to data, medical evidence and to the uncontroversial hope the vaccines bring. Pharaoh is an unlikely teacher as he refuses to see a possible end to suffering. It’s surely incumbent on us to welcome the vaccine with an open heart and an open arm outstretched.  

In November 1942, three years into the war, Winston Churchill declared: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” The vaccine is just that. Be ready for yours.  

  •  Rabbi Rebecca Birk is co-chair of the Conference of Liberal Rabbis and Cantors 

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