What does it mean to be a slave? There is a redundancy of time and tasks; each day looks like the previous one and the next day is going to be the same as well. Isn’t the meaning of slavery a question we ask ourselves each Pesach at our Sedars? In order to celebrate the liberation from slavery, an understanding of the meaning of slavery is an essential component of the holiday.
In the pantheon of Jewish rituals, Shabbat has become the ultimate rebellion against slavery. We acknowledge that in the Kiddush when we bless the wine in memory of both the creation and the Exodus from Egypt. Instead of being controlled by time, I become its master. I do not work at my chosen profession and spend the precious 25 hours with the people that I love, in prayer, in study, in contemplation and most importantly, in a community of others who are doing the same thing.
Shabbat consists of a series of rituals designed to make the day look and feel different. It is ended with a prayer that acknowledges its separateness from other days of the week. Hamavdil bein kodesh lechol is blessing God who makes the distinction between the holy and the secular. And when Shabbat is over, we return to the daily grind.
And that is how my people have been celebrating both time and history for over 3,000 years. However a few months ago, a virus that originated with a bat which became zoonotic (a $64 word for transmission from animals to humans) and suddenly everything prior to that time meant something different. Prior to March of 2020, whoever heard of social distancing, home quarantining or the myriad of other things we are having to do to avoid both getting and transmitting this deadly virus?
And with quarantining ourselves inside of our homes, each day feels the same as the previous one, a slavery of sorts. Granted this is not the physical slavery of Egypt, but it is not without its consequences, which include a redundancy of time, a similarity of each day to the one before it.
Without that marked difference between Shabbat and the other days of the week, the celebration of Shabbat these past few weeks have seemed listless and out of place. The holiness of Shabbat is acutely choreographed and so much of it is done within the context of community. But that community has been taken away from each of us for our own safety and well being. So when the task of making Shabbat holy can no longer be communal; it can only be personal and familial.
Is there still a method in the age of COVID-19 to connect with others as a means of feeling the transcendence of Shabbat? I am a non-Orthodox Jew so I do have the internet and electronic devices with which to connect to others in my community. But I am harping on an illusion and attempting to fool myself into somehow thinking this form of connection is anything other than an inadequate substitution for the real thing. It may be the best form of Shabbat communal connection that we can have, but nevertheless it is a poor substitution.
Maybe my inability to find the connection that I seek comes down to a failure of my own imagination. George Clinton of Funkadelic may have had it right when he wrote, “Free your mind and your ass will follow.” But the Rabbis who designed the rituals of Shabbat did so for a reason. There are limitations to human imagination. We are finite beings who need the tangible symbols with which to connect. Otherwise everything is merely abstraction.
The Pesach story is the most visible demonstration of our need for non-abstractions. We tell an actual story; we eat food symbolic of the story. It is concrete. We then personalize the story. As the Haggadah says, it is incumbent upon us to personalize the Exodus. You must regard yourself as having been personally brought out of Egypt. We do not live in an era of Jewish physical slavery. So personal liberation must take on a different tone, a spiritual liberation. The symbols of the Seder are but one means of connecting. Yes we may be connecting without loved ones present in small gatherings without the usual collection of extended family and friends. But spiritual liberation is actually a mental state, which requires a freeing of the mind. And now more than ever we need to follow Funkdelic’s admonition that once we do so, everything else will follow!
Stay safe and hag sameach!!!
Doug Workman is a lawyer quarantining in Northridge.