By Clifford M. Kulwin, Rabbi Emeritus
Reprinted from NJJN
These are strange and difficult times, and this is going to be a strange and difficult Passover. Our seder table usually seats 30. I don’t know how many will actually be present next Wednesday evening, but I do know I’ll be able to count them on one hand.
Normally, now, a week out from the holiday, I’d be focused on the Haggadah, preparing for the seder ceremony. This year, too, I have been engrossed in a book, but rather than the Haggadah, it is H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel, “The War of the Worlds.” Perhaps you’ve listened to Orson Welles’ 1938 radio adaption, so realistic it sent the country into three days of free fall, or watched one of the five film versions made since the first in 1953. But if you haven’t read the actual book, you’re missing out.
Mars is decaying and becoming uninhabitable. The Martians need a new home and choose the planet next door. They invade, organize, and conquer the English countryside. With their Heat-Ray and their Black Smoke they are unstoppable, until they are felled by unseen attackers, the microbes to which humanity had developed a natural immunity or, in Wells’ words, “the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon his earth.”
In other words, God is the hero. He saved humanity.
Passover is of course also about a heroic God Who saves humanity. We were slaves until God set us free: “With an outstretched arm and a mighty hand, I will redeem you.” At our seders each year we re-enact the story of the Exodus from Egypt to ensure future generations never forget what God did for us.
Wells certainly appears to have had a Jewish outlook on life. “The War of the Worlds” ends with what theologians call doxology, praise to God, in this case for having saved the earth.
Wells, however, was not Jewish. Nor was he Christian. Nor was he a Muslim or a Hindu or a Taoist. In fact, H.G. Wells was an atheist, which surprised me, because his words, “the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon his earth,” even in a work of fiction, do not sound like the words of someone who denies the existence of God.
We are stuck with a question: If Wells was an atheist, why is his god a hero in “The War of the Worlds,” just like our god is in Exodus?
Some background. Until he became a full-time author, Wells was a science teacher, which is no surprise given the detailed scientific knowledge that fills many of his books. A person of enormous imagination, Wells was also perhaps the first futurist. A follower of Darwin — whose theories were still exceedingly controversial — he thought long and hard about what would eventually happen to humanity, how people would evolve.
The Martians were one answer: a race that “advanced” so far that it lost any sense of morality or compassion, acting solely in its own self-interest. In the words of Roslynn Haynes, an Australian scholar of Wells, “the Martians are not ‘evil,’ only amoral and highly efficient. Their fighting machines are simply their means of trapping or overrunning a more vulnerable species.”
Wells’ hope was to alert humanity to the dangers the future could hold if it were not careful. For him, God was simply a convenient means of bringing the story to a happy ending. Wells hoped to persuade the people of his age that only by coming together, beyond class, race, and gender, could the future be truly good.
Wells was frightened of a future when the already-large gap between haves and have-nots would be even larger, and the haves would become his Martians, taking what they wanted with no regard to anything but their own satisfaction.
At first, Passover might seem just the opposite: The whole point of the story is that we should never forget what God did for us “with an outstretched arm and a mighty hand.”
However, the Haggadah reminds us that success weathering the wilderness depended upon our being united, that only after 40 years of being forged into a people, 40 years of “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh,” “All Israel is responsible for one another” (Shavuot 39a), could our future be assured. We, today, are proof that unity was achieved.
These are strange and difficult times. The challenges are enormous and will likely be for some time. Some of us are more fortunate. We have jobs we can perform remotely, money in the bank, health insurance, a strong personal support system of family and friends. Others are less fortunate, with continued employment in doubt, family members with special needs, challenging access to medical care, and in general, few resources upon which to draw.
Especially at a moment like this, closing that gap is paramount. Thinking “we” and not “I” is essential. For the benefit of all, the unity Wells hoped to inspire, the unity our Torah teaches, must be our goal.
Clifford Kulwin is rabbi emeritus of Temple B’nai Abraham, Livingston.