Community Leaders: Passover Insights During a Pandemic

April 1, 2020
Valentyn Semenov / 500px/Getty Images

Why is this Passover different from all other Passovers? No one really needs to ask.

Our Passover plans have been totally upended. We’re worried about our own health and how we can avoid making anyone else sick. Our professional lives have been rocked and our income may be compromised. We worry about family members near and far. We worry about the education of our children. We are seeing shortages of household items we took for granted in 21st-century Los Angeles and in a world where Amazon used to deliver anything at a moment’s or a few days’ notice. And we still have our regular concerns about politics, the upcoming election and the state of the nation. On top of that, we’re trying to change our approach to preparing for and celebrating Passover while social distancing — which is the opposite of a Passover gathering. There’s no template for this. Or is there?

We asked community leaders what was on their minds as Passover approaches, which marks the trials and celebrates the tribulations of the Jewish people as we moved from slavery to freedom. They spoke up for vulnerable populations, meditated on what it means to be a stranger and delved into seder segments looking for lessons on loss and liberation. They urged us to move toward empathy, to reflect, and as always, to look for slivers of light in darkness.

Moving humanity forward
In the light of the full moon, in every historical moment, Passover comes to let us know that struggles and sorrows abound and liberation and redemption are always possible. This year we are feeling the fear and anxiety of the narrow place (mitzrayim) in a new way for this generation. We must also feel the possibility of a path to redemption. The seder itself is a model of this possibility. We gather together around tables (and this year, screens connecting us to other tables) to retell the story and we center our telling around questions. We are a people whose tradition prods us to ask questions that lead to more questions that lead to new answers and more questions. Our communities, our nation, our world, needs this now. With curiosity and relentless questions we can explore: How do we care for our families and neighbors? What does leadership need to look like? How do we care for the most vulnerable in our society? How can we approach the virus itself with medicine and research? How do we resource one aspect of our economy in service of others? Our tradition tells us that every generation is to feel as if we are ourselves have come out of this narrow place, and indeed right now, we can help to bring one another through. Let us use the time during the seder to ask questions that will move humanity forward, and after our prayers and songs, let us act toward the liberation of us all.
—Rabbi Susan Goldberg, Nefesh

From narrow straits to miracles
One could argue that never before has the etymology of the Hebrew word for Egypt (mitzrayim) been so eerily resonant. Mitzrayim stems both from the meaning of “narrow” and “travail.” Our people’s enslavement was physical, chaining us to torturous labor, and psycho-communal, forcing us into the most narrow and burdensome of existences. And so the expanse promised by emerging from the birth waters of the split sea was not just the absence of taskmasters, but the presence of space. Space to breathe. Space to speak. Space to live and work and pray.

We are, heading into Pesach, in painfully narrow straits. Our existences have been circumscribed. Even those who have the blessing of a roof over our heads are experiencing a version of imprisonment. And no matter the square footage of one’s abode and the strength of one’s WiFi and the upgraded status of one’s Zoom account, the walls seem to be closing in. I pray, first, that we pray. Because prayer is an act of spiritual resistance. Prayers can’t magically alter the reality of the world but they may utterly and humbly alter our response to that world. And I pray that we keep the open wilderness, to which this crucible, this Egypt, will eventually yield, in our mind’s eye. This enslavement will take lives, as all slaveries do. And it also will submit to the life force we have within us individually and communally and globally. That is our promised land. We march forward.
—Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Temple Beth Am

A new interpretation of ‘strangeness’
One of the integral themes of Pesach is the notion that we were strangers in a strange land long ago. With this awareness, we are tasked with extending a hand to those who are strangers too. This year, a new set of strangeness and stranger-ness has emerged, and with it, the need for a new interpretation. We may feel like strangers in our estrangement. We are experiencing loneliness and isolation in a way most of us have never experienced. The challenge is to find ways to connect, to pray, to worship and to love when everything and everyone can seem so distant right now, physically and emotionally. Is it so different from the ninth plague? Where darkness takes over and we have difficulty distinguishing between friend and enemy? How can we see through this darkness in ways that are meaningful? Although things are strange and although we may seem like strangers to one another, we are all still one with one other. As humans and as Jews and as followers of an ancient path, which led us through a desert out of slavery into an ocean of chaos, which ultimately led us to our divine destiny. We are in the middle of miracles every day. May we all experience these miracles as evidence of our connectedness in the midst of strangeness.
—Mayim Bialik, actor, writer, neuroscientist

Sustaining loss, sustaining love
I am thinking about the anxiety of the first Passover of our ancestors before liberation from Egypt. The blood on the doorpost and the Angel of Death, but also the promise of a path through the sea. How our future is uncertain and we increasingly realize our reliance on one another and the power of faith and tradition to provide meaning and solace. And I am thinking of those who are alone, who are fearful for their futures and the future of their families, and remembering the words of the Psalmist: In the evening there will be weeping, but joy will come in the morning. That is my hope and my prayer for us all. We will sustain loss but we will also sustain love.
—Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai Temple

Feeling the urgency of ‘Letting all who are hungry come and eat’
Each Pesach we ask, why is this night different than all other nights? But every Pesach we should ask why is every other night not held to the same standard — that all who are hungry come and eat?

This year, in the lengthening shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, that question is even more urgent. This crisis has laid bare and exacerbated vulnerabilities. Suddenly, “Let all who are hungry come and eat” reverberates all the more poignantly, and with more urgency.

Amid chaos and uncertainty, we find grounding in the strength of the Exodus story — Moses’s leadership and advocacy on behalf of his people, and Miriam, who brought joy in song and sustenance. Today, we carry their mantle. Easing the immediate pain of hunger is essential, but we cannot stop there. In the spirit of our tradition, we must use our voice to speak truth to power and make real change in the lives of those who need it most.

Our teacher Rabbi Harold Schulweis (z”l) taught us that God is in the response to crisis. May we respond with compassion and wisdom, and together we can transform how it is into how it should be.
— Abby J. Leibman, president & CEO, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger

Reflect, reset and Be redeemed
This year, bread vs. matzo, is like “life in public” vs. “shelter in place.” Bread has been used as a metaphor for the evil inclination by the rabbis of the Talmud (Berakhot 17a), and “fermentation equivalent to decay and corruption,” by Jacob Milgrom in his Leviticus commentary. Matzo, Philo suggests, is a return to a more natural state of living. Purging the leavened from our lives is “to make a fresh start,” writes the biblical scholar William Propp, “to experience catharsis.”

When we go out into the world, we resemble the fluffy, puffed up bread we eat all year. The fluff and puff are built up by social desires to appear to be someone — the masks and public veneers we wear to hide our true selves and only show what we think we want to others to see. Out in the world there is temptation and excess and waste. When we shelter in place, life slows down. We exist in a more natural state without the social pressure we put on ourselves. At home we are just us, just human beings, and it is an opportunity to reflect upon what’s truly important to us. So when we take a crunchy bite of matzo this year, it can serve as a reminder to reflect, reset and be redeemed, like the Israelites of Egypt.
—Rabbi Jonathan Aaron, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills

Becoming more empathic, grateful and evolved
In every generation, one must see oneself as if he/she personally escaped Egypt. This year, quarantined because of the coronavirus, those words can lead us to a renewed appreciation of the Passover lesson. Think of the isolation and dread the Israelites experienced on that night of the last plague — the death of the firstborn. Told to stay in their homes, one can only imagine their terror and the faith it took to believe: that smearing the blood of an animal on a doorpost would spare their children. Think of the fear when the Israelites were asked to suddenly leave and to venture out into the desert not knowing where they were going and whether they would live or die. Many times in recent history such uncertainty prevailed for Jews on Passover. But for those of us who did not personally experience the Holocaust or lives of oppression, the coronavirus provides a unique circumstance through which we can become more empathic, thoughtful, grateful and indeed more evolved human beings. So many have loved ones afflicted and dying during this pandemic. People are anxious and terrified while having to bear their fright largely in isolation.

The literal story of Passover is the exodus from Egypt leading to Torah and freedom. The figurative lesson is the “why.” Why was the Torah so important so as to justify the horror and injustice wrought by the plagues? For me, the “why” relates to the humanity and empathy, which the Torah demands of us. This year, as we recount our Jewish journey from slavery to freedom, I hope that we recognize the fragility of life and the beauty of what happens when we live the Torah of humanity and kindness — when people, even people who are physically isolated, care for the “other” in new and as yet untold ways.  —Janice Kamenir-Reznik, Jewish World Watch

Reading the Passover story more empathically
Torah encourages us to read the Israelites uncharitably by casting them as the ultimate kvetchers. Exodus 14:11 actually reads like a Yiddish joke. “Nu? There weren’t enough graves in Egypt, that you had to shlep us to the desert to die?”

But in fairness, our ancestors make a valid point. Freedom saturated with fear is hardly freedom. And our people had what to fear, as Pharaoh’s army bore down on them in full view.

When we celebrate our remarkable and pervasive freedom at Passover this year, we, too, like our forebears, will also rue the fear that pervades it. What’s more, in a cruel twist on the Passover story, the root of our fear lies in, of all things, a plague.

As such, this year, we can read the story more empathically.

Like the Children of Israel, we, too, are learning — not the just the responsibilities of freedom but also its ironies. To ensure our social fabric, we have to curtail our social interactions and otherwise unfettered movement. To enjoy sufficient food, we have to limit our consumption.

In this way, perhaps, Passover’s story can mean more now than most of us have ever known.
—Joshua Holo, Dean Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Skirball Campus 

Huddling in darkness. Turning to the light
At a recent meeting, NewGround’s executive director Aziza Hasan began with insights about accustoming one’s eyes to see in the dark — a teaching that has been settling in on me all week. I hear of people losing their livelihoods. I receive reports of friends’ family members who have died. With Passover on the horizon, I think “in every generation a person must imagine that they, themselves, came out of Egypt” and so my mind moves back to that last night in Egypt. Each family huddling in their homes in complete darkness, but still needing to prepare to leave as soon as dawn breaks, with no idea what lies ahead. Even through their fear, their eyes quickly adapted to the dark because no matter the fear and the darkness, each family was prepared to go by daybreak. Their eyes and hearts must have taken in any sliver of light present to move themselves through the darkness of their homes to prepare together. We are in a long night now. Like the Israelites, we must accustom our eyes and hearts to the dark, turn to the slivers of light to help us remain resilient, responsive and ready to move forward.
—Andrea Hodos, associate director, NewGround: a Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change 

Time to reflect and revitalize
One silver lining in this crisis is a reprieve from our busy lives and the slavery of our relentless routine. Those of us who are healthy have the time to reflect on what truly matters, count the many blessings we tend to take for granted and appreciate the fragility of it all. We have the unique opportunity, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “to look and to behold” who created this world and for what purpose. I am hopeful that we will eventually emerge from this crisis a revitalized community with shared gratitude and a deeper sense of purpose.
—Sam Yebri, President, 30 Years After 

Protecting the most vulnerable: Our story will be told
Research shows that the best way to practice empathy is to come within proximity of “the other.” Passover reminds us to be empathetic by recounting the story of a time when we were “the other.” Remember you were a slave in Egypt and remember you were a stranger in a strange land. The stranger is one of three most vulnerable categories in the Torah: the orphan, the widow and the stranger. No matter what status you have reached, you always must remember whence you came and remember the help and support you needed at that time.

During this pandemic, we know who are the most vulnerable. It is upon us to walk around as if we have the virus in order to avoid giving it to those who are most at risk, just like we should always walk around remembering what it’s like for us as Jews to be vulnerable.

As we find ourselves in the middle of a modern plague we will place a crown (corona) on our seder plate. We are not free from the work of protecting the most vulnerable among us. The story of our behavior during COVID-19 will be told for generations, including did we learn to be a kinder, safer and more responsible society?
— Avram Mandell, Tzedek America

Practice compassion, generosity and kindness
I first heard the song “Gesher Tzar Meod” (A Very Narrow Bridge) many years ago during a trip to Israel. The words struck me the moment I heard them: kol haolam kulo gesher tzar meod, v’ha-ikar lo lefached klal: “the whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the essential thing is to not be afraid at all.” The melody is by a man named Baruch Chait; the lyrics are from the writings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, the great Chasidic master. For years I pondered these words. The narrow bridge seemed to be an adept metaphor for the challenging and uncertain moments in life (much like our current pandemic). But, I wondered, how could it be possible to not be afraid?

This past week, a friend pointed me to the source text, hinting that the song did not quite capture Nachman’s words. The Hebrew word used to describe being afraid is in the reflexive form (yitpached), which changes the translation to “the essential thing is to not frighten yourself.” This crucial difference was enlightening. Nachman never meant to negate the real, necessary fear response. Perhaps he simply meant that we should not add unnecessary, crippling fear that prevents us from moving forward.

During this crisis, it is natural to feel afraid and uncertain. We must acknowledge the severity of the situation and exercise great caution. Yet we don’t need to paralyze ourselves with fear. We can limit our news intake to once or twice a day. We can reach out to our friends, family members and communities virtually and more often. We can stay active and try to get enough sleep. We can practice compassion, generosity and kindness (which so many people are doing in beautiful ways).

The Hebrew word for Egypt is mitzrayim, which can literally be translated as “narrow places.” Passover celebrates the deliverance and redemption of our ancestors from the “narrow places.” As we prepare for very different seders and Passover services this year, may we remember to not frighten ourselves, so that we can move forward, one day at a time and cross this very narrow bridge of uncertainty with the faith that our redemption is close by.
— Jacqueline Rafii, cantor, Shomrei Torah Synagogue

A prayer during the pandemic
Dear God: It is known to You that we want to fulfill Your commandment to celebrate Passover by eating matzo and abstaining from chametz. To our sorrow, we cannot fulfill these precepts. We are not masters of our own fate and our lives are in danger. We are ready to fulfill “So that you shall live by them” and not die. We are commanded to do what we must in order to survive; by eating chametz we will fulfill, “Be ever so careful with your life.” We pray that You keep us alive so we merit to survive to fulfill Your commandments in the future. Amen. (Bergen-Belsen, 1944).

Dear God: 76 years later, we again find ourselves in times of fear and uncertainty. While we are thankfully not in concentration camps, we are still not masters of our own fate and our lives are in danger. We do have matzo for this year’s seder, but will eat it with the same prayer from 1944: keep us alive so we merit to survive to fulfill Your commandments in the future. Amen. (Los Angeles, 2020)
—Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, Sephardic Educational Center and Westwood Village Synagogue

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