We find ourselves in a strange place this year for Pesach. The Hebrew word for Egypt is “Mitzrayim,” which has the root “tzar” in it, meaning narrow. We are currently in a “narrow place” in more ways than one.
Pesach is the festival where we are commanded to retell the story of our slavery in Egypt; how we found the faith and courage to go forth to freedom and a new way of life. Even more, we are told to relive this experience, year after year, as if we ourselves came forth from bondage. And we do. Each year we gather together and open the Haggadah to observe the single most celebrated of all Jewish holidays.
But this year, we – the descendants of Moses and Miriam – have new challenges. We cannot “gather together” and family traditions that may be generations old will be broken. The gift of sitting around the table with family and friends, some even reclining to show we are free, will not be possible in its usual way. Pesach is all about freedom and that is something we see in a new light this Spring, something we have completely taken for granted in our lives.
I’m sure we are all considering how the modern plague of Covid-19 will impact the rest of our lives. Surely this time, the death of loved ones cannot be prevented by smearing our lintels/doorposts with the blood of the paschal lamb (or juice of a beet, as Talmud allows). But we are the Children of Israel and we have survived far worse. We will find the strength and courage to face the challenges of this time. We are a people of eternal hope, even in the face of crisis.
One of my favorite parts of the seder service is the Hillel sandwich. I love the fact that the Earl of Sandwich is credited with having invented the sandwich when actually Rabbi Hillel used it as a teaching tool before even the birth of Jesus. Hillel combined the sweetness of the charoset with the bitterness of the maror to remind us that in hard times, we must always remember that there will, again, be good times. And even in the good times, it’s still important to remember the difficult times. Not because we want to be depressed or dwell on our difficulties, but because hard times will always come. In fact, as we spend this frightening Passover in physical isolation, we pray that we might focus more on the blessings in our lives than the “narrowness” of this moment. Not only will this help to cheer us and make us more filled with gratitude, but more because these hard times can make us more sensitive to other people who have had and are having much more difficult times than we are. And when will finally have this deathly plague under control, they will still be going through much harder times than we ever have.
And so, even though we may be separated from our families, our friends and our communities, we know deep in our souls that we are still part of this ancient people who have survived good times and bad, for millennia. We are connected and sustained by our common sacred stories, our shared history of bravery and faith, and the timeless lessons of our traditions.
This Pesach, let us give thanks for the blessings we are so fortunate to have: our homes, our family (even if they are not at table with us), our precious friends, our community, and the technology to stay connected and supported through cellphones and computers.
T’ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Justice, reminds us that in this time of social distancing, opening our doors for Elijah feels like a radical act, one of hope and freedom. Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan writes:“Near the end of the Seder we open our doors for Elijah the Prophet, harbinger of salvation. Even when the present is filled with danger and oppression, we maintain our hope and faith, striving for a better future, as symbolized by Elijah and the vision of ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’”
To that I would add, “Next year in Jerusalem – next year COVID-19 free!”
I wish you and your loved ones much sweetness this Passover. Mixed with the bitter herbs of social distancing, it will surely be an unusual holiday. May the example of our ancestors who survived so much more, be a source of strength and inspiration for us all. May there be soon be times where the sweetness of freedom far outweighs the bitter times, not just for us but for all children of G!D. And so, from our narrow places, let us celebrate in every possible way our Festival of Freedom, knowing that hope, health, and healing are not far away. A zissen Pesach – May be it be a sweet Passover.
Gaylia R. Rooks, Rabbi Emerita