A Corona Pesach – Pesach in a Global Sukkah

Seeking a Livable Truth, according to the heritage of our Torah
Seeking a Livable Truth, according to the heritage of our Torah

It’s going to be an interesting Passover seder this year. Suddenly we all find ourselves locked down and we’re unable to travel and be with the family members we’re accustomed to being with, the friends we’re accustomed to being with, in the environments we’re accustomed to celebrating our Passover (Pesach) seder. We’re all kind of bunkered down with whoever we happen to be with – our closest family, and that’s the way it’s going to go.

And it feels strange – this is a strange time altogether with everything that’s going down in the world, because the reality is that it’s not just those of us celebrating Pesach who are going through this situation, but pretty much everyone in the world now. And so we feel this weight upon us, and we feel disoriented by it.  But it’s interesting because Pesach is the time of Yetziyat Mitzrayim, going out of Egypt.  And our sages teach us to read the Hebrew word for ‘Egypt’, ‘Mitzrayim’, as ‘Meitzarim’ – meaning “boundaries” or “contraints”.  So this is the time of breaking free of the Meitzarim, the boundaries, the straits, the things that hold us back in life.

It’s also the time when God’s Kingship/Queenship becomes revealed in the world.  And when I think about this, I can’t help but connect it to what it means to go out and dwell in the Sukkah, the simple hut that Jewish families build outside their home every year after the High Holidays of Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. 

For those who aren’t familiar, the Sukkah is a little tabernacle, a little hut which reminds us of the huts we dwelled in when God took us out of Egypt. The circumstances of the exodus led us to have to sit in these little temporary dwellings, these makeshift huts as we were traveling, much like bedouins today.

Once a year on the Sukkot holiday, after Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, we go out and we build these ramshackle little huts which have thatch, natural roofs that we can see the stars through, and that provide more shade than sunlight.  We go out and we live in this Sukkah for seven days, remembering how God sat us in these little huts when we left Egypt.

And it’s a fair question to ask why we don’t just build a Sukkah at Passover time and dwell in a Sukkah for Passover, because that’s when Sukkot actually happened.

It’s interesting that these two holidays of Passover & Sukkot are set six months apart to the day on the Jewish calendar, like these balancing north and south poles of sorts – a sort of Spiritual equilibrium.  And aside from the fact that if we had to build a Sukkah on Pesach on top of everything else we already need to do to clean our homes, we would probably lose our minds, there’s a deeper parallel going on.

The thing is that the first half of the Jewish calendar, the first cycle of the Jewish year is focused on what God does for the world, so to speak, and God’s moving hand or moving force in the world.  Whereas the second half of the year is about the human partnership in shaping the world,  and what human beings can do in order to create and shape the world in a positive Spiritual manifestation.

So, Passover is when God liberates us from the boundaries that hold us back, and Sukkot is when we liberate ourselves from our materialism and return to basics.

Before Sukkot is the holiday of Yom HaKippurim – a Hebrew play-on-words for ‘A Day Like Purim’.  On Yom HaKippurim (Yom Kippur), we work to transcend the physical, and connect to God through our prayers.  We seek to connect to that which is truly Spiritual and Divine, and we leave behind all our physicality to connect to God. Before Pesach is the holiday of Purim, where God is hidden throughout the story and we’re meant to notice God’s hidden presence within the story and within our lives. But on Purim we do this by laying down our own abilities, by removing our own tools of perception through drinking lots of wine, in order to see what is always hidden within life — the goodness and Godliness behind the veil.

Before Purim is the holiday of the Rosh HaShana of trees, of nature (Tu B’Shvat) – God’s revealed Spiritual force in the world. And before Yom Kippur is the holiday of Rosh HaShana of the creation of the world on the human side, where we think about the world as we have impacted it, through our choices.  We think about what choices we’ve made and what choices we hope to make in terms of creating a better future.

So we see that the second half of the year – Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot are all about what we do. Whereas the first half of the year – Tu B’Shvat, Purim, and Pesach are all about what God does and how God reveals Himself/Herself in the world to us.

Of course, right away the second night of Pesach we start counting until we get to an eighth day which is the holiday of God giving us the Torah (Shavuot), while Sukkot ends with an eighth-day holiday as well, which is Simchat Torah. Consistent with the concept of these two cycles (one side where ‘God leads’, and one side where ‘humanity leads’),  Shavuot is when God gives us the torah, whereas on Simchat Torah, again the side of the calendar where humanity are “the doers”, we complete the reading and study of the Torah and begin it again.

Nine weeks after Shavuot, the holiday of receiving the Torah, is Tisha B’Av where we feel the destruction of the temple, but we sit and wait for God to save us. Whereas nine weeks after Simchat Torah is Chanuka, which is the desecration of the temple where we light candles and transcend eight days, tapping into our ability to ultimately heal the world ourselves.

And so one half of the Jewish calendar represents what we do for ourselves and the world, as human beings shaping our individual and collective destiny.  And the other half represents, so to speak, what God reveals to us.

Going into a Sukkah is something we do – it’s a way we manifest and express our ability to connect with, so to speak, the real and important priorities of life.  And alternatively, on Passover, we contemplate how God, through external events in life, opens gates and gives us the ability to break through boundaries.  Passover is the holiday focused upon the fact that God is constantly opening doors via the surrounding journey of life around us.  Passover reminds us that there is a Divine Higher Power in this world, which for us, as humans, represents an infinite potential of unfolding opportunities to break through boundaries.  And this potential is especially strong during this month.

But suddenly, this Passover, God has placed the entire world in individual Sukkot.  As one global community, we have been taken out of our confining routines, family by family, nation by nation.  And we are all dwelling in Sukkot this Passover.

What do I mean?

Let me Explain…

Sukkot represents our taking personal responsibility, after reflecting on our life’s priorities over the High Holidays and breaking free into a period of pure and ‘detached’ reflection.  But what do we break free from? What is Sukkot exactly?

Sukkot is the time when, having realized what’s real and what’s not real in the way we have been living our lives, we separate from the lie of our materialism, and surround ourselves with our core family for a period of reflection.

It doesn’t matter how big or how small your house is, how much wealth we have, what we have in the bank account, how big our stock portfolio is. We all go live in these same simple little huts. We strip away the routine, habitual externalities of our life. We acknowledge that all the material is really a distracting illusion.

Ultimately what matters is our internal, personal journeys.  What matters are our loved ones by whom we are surrounded, and whatever our relationship is with them, whether those relationships are strong or need work. What matters is our state of Faith; because that hut, the Sukkah, represents our human vulnerability.  At the end of the day, what keeps us safe to some degree is whatever Faith we do have in God, or in a Higher Power, or in a Protective Force in the Universe.  And to the extent that we don’t have Faith in that, we experience a sense of vulnerability, which is also ‘ours’.

Whatever it is, in whatever state we find ourselvess and our lives to be, the Sukkah has us stripped down with our loved ones into our state of vulnerability and/or Faith, to whatever degree we have one or the other.

And that’s what’s happening now!  To everyone in the world!!!

What’s amazing is that God has basically taken this little virus, and has taken the entire world and brought the entire world into a state of being in the Sukkah.

We’re all in the Sukkah – the whole world is in the Sukkah right now. Because what has Corona done?

Suddenly, it doesn’t matter how rich you are, it doesn’t matter how big your house is, how large your stock portfolio is. All the materialism in the world doesn’t matter right now.

We’re all stripped down. We’re all stripped down, and at the end of day we’re all realizing that we’re vulnerable. We’re all equally vulnerable.

And we’re all now locked down into this intimate space – this intimate structure of vulnerability where the things we’re contemplating are the most important things in life.

  • We are locked down in close quarters with our closest family, or to the degree that we’re alone, with our loneliness.
  • We’re faced with whatever those relationships are, whatever they aren’t, and whatever degree we’re connected to those who are (or are not) with us.
  • We are also now reduced to whatever state of either Faith or lack-of-Faith that we have, to the degree that we either experience Faith and a sense of comfort and strength in that Faith, or a sense of vulnerability because of the fact that we don’t experience that Faith.  Whatever it is, it’s not a matter of right or wrong anymore – just simply what we have.
  • Where are aware of our mortality. We are aware of the precious gift of life. We are aware of life’s frailty.
  • We are aware that our time is really always ‘borrowed time’, and we’re thinking acutely of what we wish to do with our time – how we wish to invest our time.
  • Suddenly, all of our relationships become very clear to us. Which are important and which are not important; the ones we wish to invest more in and the ones we wish to invest less in.
  • With each day we think more about the things we really wish to do with our lives, the things that are not yet complete in our lives that are important to us, and the things that we’ve been distracted by in life that actually aren’t so important to us after all.

We’re sitting here in this state of the Ultimate Sukkah, ALL OF US. The whole world. And we’re experiencing it together, astonishingly, as a global consciousness.

Think of it: What exists today, which didn’t exist at any other time in history, is that in a world of global, instant communication, we have become a connected consciousness of humanity. Technology has created a connected consciousness.

And yes, it’s true that there is fake news and that there is a lot of room where technology distorts the truth for us, but the fact is that distortion comes through our own minds as well. There are plenty of things that we see incorrectly, or that we interpret through our own subjective perceptions. There are things we desire to color the way we want to color them. So every consciousness has its flaws and vulnerabilities. 

The reality, though, is that we are all connected. The reality is, that as a world, we are feeling each other in real time, and that in this time, the types of things that are happening are incredible.

When you see the UN commending – without being prompted –  commending Israel and the Palestinians for the way that they are working together… when did that ever happen?

When you see that the President of the United States has used a wartime law that was created in 1967 during the Korean war, which allows a US president to decree an Executive Order to make corporations in America make weapons in order to wage war, and he uses that law now to have American corporations create life saving respirators! Is there any Truer, greater manifestation of “beating our swords into plowshares” than that??

It is a remarkable moment in world history!  We are using laws that were created for the ability of superpower nations to make war, and we’re using those powers specifically to save lives!!

When we read about Palestinian and Israeli intelligence services working together to procure live saving materials for both populations, is that not inspiring?

When we hear about how the Mossad, the Israeli Army, and the most advanced missile making companies in Israel are now all working together and repurposing to make respirators, and to procure these things from all over the world — how can we not be amazed and inspired!!

We see swords – tools and huge organizations and apparatuses of war, being repurposed to save lives!!

We are seeing “swords being beaten into plowshares”.

We see the American president praising the leader of China, as opposed to attacking him. We see different populations coming together. We hear Hamas talking about releasing Israelis who have been held prisoner, as a humanitarian release right now. We hear about different people around the world who have been held in captivity, now being released because there is a reprioritization taking place in human consciousness…

The thing about the Sukkah, is that human consciousness is interesting. There’s a reason we go through this ‘separation and reflection’ process every year, as that Sukkot is its own stand-alone holiday. 

Because when an event happens like a flash, for a short period of time, we humans have an ability (or ‘disability) to hit a snooze button and forget.

The meditation of being in the Sukkah — the meditation of Corona and the global shut-down we are living through — is really quite sharp and clear to us all.

Let’s think about what’s on everybody’s mind:

  • All of our material wealth isn’t what really matters in the end.
  • There are no greater people or weaker people when it comes to the point when the material lie is shattered, and we are all feeling our basic, human mortality and vulnerability.
  • In this time I am now sitting with those who are closest to me, or in a measure of isolation to the degree that there is no one around me.
  • I’m experiencing my relationships for what they are.
  • In the state of being locked down with those closest to me, I cannot help but contemplate what is most important to me. I think of the value of relationships.
  • I think of the value of time. I think of the preciousness of life itself and I am acutely aware of how innately connected I am to whatever level of Faith or lack of Faith that I have.
  • I’m aware of how vulnerable I am…

This psychological/Spiritual awakening is operative in every human being right now, and we are all connected to one another. We are all feeling it together.

The thing about these types of situations, is we all know that if this only happened for a week or two, and then we were told “oops, sorry, it wasn’t so bad”, we’d get mad at certain people for false-alarms, and then we’d all go back to our routines and we’d forget about it.

However, because Corona is lasting for months — it started in December and we’re now in April, and we’re told it’s going to continue, and we’re told that, God forbid, it could get worse before it gets better — the longer it lasts, the more it will become true that we will not be able to shake it off.

It is specifically because of the length of time that we are all spending in this Sukkah of Corona, as a global community of individual families and nations, that the catharsis we’re going through will truly make an imprint in our individual and our collective minds and Spirits.

The one thing you can be sure of is that humanity will be changed profoundly – profoundly – as the result of this experience.

We will not emerge from this period the same humanity that went into it.

Whereas with 9/11 and global terror, what we experience was/is a collision of societies – off those who have with those who don’t have, the primitive with the less primitive, the pained with the more provided, the violent with the cultured – however you want to interpret it…

Whereas in the past, diseases happened in certain countries but they were isolated to those areas, because we were more geographically isolated from one another, and by the time we heard about them they were already over…

But now we are not dealing with the collision of societies, of different cultures, or events that are taking place in isolation to certain populations or nations. We’re dealing with something that’s happening to all of us together, in a connected manner. 

And what we’re colliding with is our humanity.

We are colliding with our own individual and national values, and our own priorities.

We are colliding with our prioritization of family, the lie of materialism, our state of Faith, our use of time, our state of vulnerability, the value we assign to our time here on earth and the way we live our lives.

We are colliding with our sense of our own mortality.

What could be more important?

We are all sharing it together.

On this pesach, this time, whatever God is to us as human beings is very much alive for us right now.

To whatever degree that Kingship/Queenship could be revealed to us, whatever It is, It is revealed to us right now in Its strongest, most intense fashion.

We are all, so to speak, going through that moment of being atheists or non-atheists in a foxhole, and we’re going through it collectively.

We are all going through that moment when a doctor says to us “I’m not sure how much time you’ve got here. You better start getting your life in order”.

We’re going through it collectively, surrounded by our loved ones, with no distractions other than the essence of what we are.

Somehow this Pesach, this Passover, we are back where we were when we were coming out of Egypt.  But it’s happening to the whole world.

It’s not us, after Yom Kippur, building a Sukkah and doing it for ourselves. Rather, this Passover God has taken the entire world out of the home of our routine lives, and brought us all into a virtual Sukkah — a Spiritual Sukkah.  A Sukkah of our consciousness.  A Sukkah within our homes.  A Sukkah in the Truest Essence of what a Sukkah is.

And God has brought us into this space.

We didn’t bring ourselves here.

Somehow now, as it was originally, Passover is the time where we are leaving the ‘land of the boundaries’ of the life we have known it, and we are all going out into the Sukkah.

We’re all in the Sukkah as we go into Passover, and we’re in there as an entire world, and it’s an incredible thing.

As a world, we will change profoundly, in incredibly beautiful ways.

There is no other way for it to happen now.

– – – – – – – – – – –

One of the things that has changed for me personally in the past number of years, is that I, along with my family, have gone through real hardships and very serious life-trials, and we have seen up close and personal tremendous human suffering and pain. 

Transformed by these experiences, I have been challenged to reconstruct my perspectives and interpretations of Judaism and our Spiritual dynasty, to integrate these difficult trials into the ways I think about God and life. 

Among the things that I’ve had to reconstruct is what I have come to consider one of the greatest sources of confusion in Judaism, the story of the Ten Plagues, which is central to the Passover holiday and the ‘Seder’ night (the central observance of Passover, wherein we transmit the Jewish tradition from one generation to the next).   

The problem that this central role of the Ten Plagues presents, within the core of Jewish tradition and transmission, is the suggestion that God will save us from our human disasters.  The confusion is created by a narrative that sets us up to expect that God will intervene when things get really terrible.

But God doesn’t intervene. God doesn’t save us. Certainly not like we are told it happened in Egypt.

God did not save six million Jews, and millions of other innocent victims, from the Nazi Holocaust.

God does not save every innocent person from violence and terror. 

In our Me-Too era, we are painfully aware that God does not protect our daughters from violent crime and assault.

Of course, many of us have experienced moments when we have felt the kiss of God in our lives – a little moment of Divine help.  Of course, there are moments when we feel, so to speak, lucky or feel like we were blessed with some ‘outside help’, even though we were really careless or reckless.

But the concept that we can rely on God to step in,

or expect God to intervene in the human journey and conflicts of life,

to intervene or give some kind of ‘outside boost’ to our development of human morality,

to expect God to ‘insert His/Her hand’ and repair the painful choices we make,

to hope for God to protect us from evil —

it’s simply not True.

History is full of evidence of this.

And so are our individual family stories.

Like the ones many of us are living through and reflecting upon right now, as some of us have lost loved ones in this great global Sukkah of Corona.

So the story of the Ten Plagues has become something that’s very troubling to me, because it creates in our consciousness an expectation that when bad things happen, and God doesn’t save us – it destroys some of our Faith. 

Because we don’t understand where that intervening God is.

The one that we were taught about.

The one that we literally center our entire Passover holiday around — the holiday of the Jewish transmission of our Tradition.

We center our holiday and the Seder night around the Ten Plagues. God’s intervention.

Bu that’s just not the way it works.

And this disappointed expectation, as we grow older in life, destroys the Faith of so many.

Having really come to terms with God’s non-intervening (or, non-openly-revealed intervening) Hand over the past few years, I wasn’t sure what it would be like for me to lead my family Seder this Passover with my children and with my wife.  What would I have to say this year? How could I relate?  How can I seek to transmit our 3,500 year old Jewish dynasty with integrity, when I know from experience that real life does not look the way it does in the Passover Haggada?

We were talking about my dilemma this past Friday night — myself, my friend Ariel Weiss, and my son Yair.  And later, Ariel and I discussed it further with my daughter Revi and my friend Shai Katz.  And I realized that I believe I understand the message, perhaps for the first time.

The thing that we need to understand — and try to stay with me here — is that God can’t pick us up and bring us to a higher state of moral consciousness than we’ve arrived at as a collective humanity.

If you take somebody and you ‘leapfrog’ them to a higher state of Spiritual living and elevation than they’re really holding at, they will ultimately regress back to where they’re holding mentally.

A person won’t (and ultimately cannot) live at a higher state of being or a higher state of morality than they truly understand. They will always regress back to whatever point they’ve grown to.

There is no ‘bypass road’ to moral growth and Spiritual development.  It just doesn’t work.

So either you give up on free will, and you literally erase the human journey, or the journey has to happen according to its own, natural learning course. There is no shortcut.

I think that the message of the Ten Plagues is actually explained by another central part of the Passover Seder, when we say, “Elah sheb’chol dor v’dor omdim aleinu l’chaloteinu” — “In every generation, evil has risen up to threaten us”.

The message is that Divine Intervention actually doesn’t work.

Divine Assistance does, but Divine Intervention does not.

Yes, Divine Intervention may create an opportunity.  But ultimately, it’s what we make of it.

Think about it: 

You only have to go back one hundred years in the great moral country of The United States of America to see that we still had slavery.  Somehow, despite God intervening in Egypt, slavery didn’t leave the world.

The fact is that genocide, brutality, and killing are still, sadly, alive and well in our world, 3,500 years after the Ten Plagues and God’s miraculous intervention to save the poor and suffering.

You want to see the killing? The brutal killing of a leader like ancient Pharaoh, killing his own people and their children?  Look in Syria, where Assad was bombing his own people and somehow he’s still in power.

If you want to see the suffering of the righteous at the hands of evil, look at the Free Syria Army (FSA), who fought alongside America and the West against ISIS – indigenous Syrian people who courageously rose up from their own society and aligned themselves with what they believed to be the future. They aligned themselves with what they saw as a higher morality in the world, and then chose to brave against their own evil rulership to stand for what they dreamed would be a better tomorrow.

Yet they were abandoned by America and the West, and are now sandwiched between Syria, Russia, and Turkey in a narrow strip of land, and Turkey has released the most violent, vulgar militias upon them who are killing, raping, and robbing them. And now, because of Coronavirus… we think we have problems?

400,000 people of the Free Syrian Army and their families, who fought alongside American and the West against ISIS, and who fought against the Syrian regime that was chlorine bombing their own people, now have been cut off from any water sources.  The Turkish militias that have them under siege (and to which the West is turning a blind eye) has cut off all their water because the militias want all the water for themselves during this Coronavirus crisis.

There are 400,000 people now, who fought for freedom and fought for all the right things, who now have no water.

What are you going to do for them right now? Who in the world is going to do anything for them right now with all that we’re all going through? Show me how you can raise a petition to help them right now…

So, yes, the message of God’s intervention is not about how it saved us.   

Rather, I believe it is about the fact that if at the end of the Seder night, it manages to raise our human consciousness, morality, and sensitivity one notch higher in terms of the way we think about the world, we have successfully managed to transmit the message of Judaism and Divine morality to our children.  I believe that the story of the Exodus raises the bar in the way we think about this gift of life, and the way we think about our opportunities.

It challenges us, during our Passover in the Sukkah of Corona, to consider the gift of this moment in life, and what really matters in the world. 

It challenges us to embrace our ability to reprioritize our own values, and approach this world and this journey with a greater sensitivity, sobriety, respect, and cherished love.

Because even with the Divine Intervention of the Ten Plagues, “Elah sheb’chol dor v’dor omdim aleinu l’chaloteinu” — “In every generation, evil has risen up to threaten us”.  It will repeat again, because at the end of the day, what saves humanity is our own moral evolution. That’s what saves us.

So, I give us all a Bracha, a blessing to embrace the gift of this time of Passover in the Sukkah of Corona.  I give us all a blessing to embrace this ‘together-time’, as a collective humanity and a collective human family, being in the Sukkah together.

Surround yourself with those loved ones who are with you, and open yourself up to the vulnerability you feel because of those who are not close by right now, even though you wish they were.  Internalize the love and longing.

Open yourself up to the lie – the falsity of all the materialism, and what it really means when it comes down to what matters most in life.

Experience the sense of great equality among all of us as a human race.

Open yourself up to the question of what your Faith means to you, or to the degree that you don’t have Faith, what the resulting vulnerability represents for you.

Open yourself up to your sense of time, morality, and mortality – your prioritization of how you use your time, what you’re investing it in, what your greatest values are, what really matters to you, and how you really want to use your time.

Consider the relationships you truly want to invest in, the relationships you want to invest in less, and the things you want to spend less time wasted upon.

Embrace this time of Exodus into the Sukkah. Open yourself up to the experience of all of us, as humanity, experiencing this Exodus and reflective-space together.

In this time of liberation from those Meitzarim, those straits, the holding-us-back boundaries of life — feel the Kingship/Queenship of the glory, of the collective love, the collective wonder, the collective vulnerability, the beautiful humanity of us all:  For all of its hope, for all of its faith, for all of its growth, and for the fact that we are at a time when we are going to reach a different level of communal, global consciousness than ever before. 

The opportunities that await us through this period of transformation are as infinite as the light of the sun and the Source Itself.

L’chaim and Happy Pesach to Everybody. 

 

About the Author
Rabbi Shu, as he is known to his chevreh, is an informal leader of grassroots Jewish renewal. Published in multiple journals of Jewish thought, and a popular speaker among Jewish institutions of all denominations, Rabbi Shu brings fresh and relevant perspectives on Judaism as 'a livable Truth'.
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