I don’t think I have ever experienced the weeks and days leading up to Pesach the way I am this year. I have been isolated, paranoid, unsure of myself and the world around me, and anxious about what the future has in store — only because of some intangible, infinitesimal virus that somehow made its way from China to every single home in the world!
Living in Efrat, I am fully aware that Israel has seen its share of tense moments, terror and otherwise turbulent times. Yet, there was something about the mystery of this virus that has haunted (and still haunts) me. When will it end? How can I protect myself and my family from it? And on the more religious, philosophical level — Is this God’s plan? If not, how do we understand this deadly virus in our world? If yes, how do we understand God’s actions?
So, with these thoughts swirling around my head, I nervously prepare myself for the chag…but how do we prepare for the most joyous, freeing, liberating holiday with all this anxiety? How does the joy of Pesach correlate with the nervousness I feel every day while this fear lingers?
Perhaps when I am reminded of the first chag, I am a bit comforted. It is the same one which commemorates how a bunch of nervous Hebrews thousands of years ago also sat in their homes, filled with anxiety. The Israelites believed in God and were marveled by the miracles; they would follow Moshe and become a great nation. But they also knew about Pharaoh and his policies. They recalled the loss of their children tossed in the sea, the spontaneous pogroms, and the Egyptian guards ransacking their homes at any whim, and that made them nervous.
They believed in God and were excited about the future, but they were also worried about their present.
So when Moshe told them to take this lamb and tie it up, the sacred god of the Egyptians and prepare it for slaughtering, a crime worthy of the death penalty in ancient Egypt, they did it, but anxiously. They went through with it, but during those four days they were constantly looking over their shoulders, constantly wondering when the Egyptians would storm in on them.
In this condition, with those thoughts swirling around their heads, during the height of their nervousness, Chag Hapesach is declared! Moshe sends word throughout Israel through its elders: “the time of celebration has come, slaughter the animals, make the korban Pesach, take the blood and make a sign for all to see, but then do not leave your house for the rest of the day, until the next morning for a plague from God will devastate your enemies but you will be safe. This is how you should celebrate the redemption, this is how you should mark the festival of Passover”.
“Celebrate? But we are still slaves. Rejoice? But we have not yet left Egypt, Pharaoh is still able to storm in and destroy us! How can you expect us to feel complete joy at a time when we are still looking over our shoulders, wondering if the mysterious plague is going to kill us too?”
Moshe responds: “You’re right. And I will make it more complicated. God told me that this is how you should mark your first holiday. Eat the Passover sacrifice, but eat it in haste, “with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand”. With one foot out the door to make a run for it, or with one eye casing the exit making sure that no one is rushing in on you to destroy you, that is how you should celebrate.”
Contradiction? Complication? Mixed emotions?
Yes, yes, yes, and yet, that is Judaism!
Moshe tells his nation, “this is the essence of Passover in Egypt, it is the holiday in the midst of the darkness; it is to rejoice in the middle of the pain and to dance when you are still unsure of the future; when your enemy still threatens to kill you, when uncertainty still hovers, this is the beginning of your redemption.”
Reading these words, I can’t help but recognize how much it is speaking to us today. It is as if Moshe gathered the elders of Israel in the year 2020 and told them, “listen, the redemption has begun, and you are well on your way. You have seen the signs and wonders of God over the years, time and time again. You have watched the name of God be uttered throughout the world and the process of the final redemption is coming up.
So I ask from you, wherever you are; whether you celebrate alone due to the fears of Corona, or whether you are with family but have suffered a loss due to this terrible disease, I ask from you to psychologically get dressed and buckle your belts, mentally put your shoes on, and emotionally take your staff in hand awaiting any danger that may come your way. Fortify yourselves with the knowledge that after this meal the journey begins: just like the Israelites of old where they prepared themselves for the flight from danger, the witnessing of their enemies’ ultimate demise, their receiving the law, and their final journey to Israel, so too it shall be for you.
Prepare yourselves for this journey towards seeing the hand of God, mightier than ever. Recognize that the journey begins in unease and with sacrifice, but soon with faith and unity we will see our arrogant enemy submit to the will of God and ultimately, we will see him no longer as we witness them being consumed by the crashing waves of God’s thunderous decree”.
These words will reverberate in my mind when I sit with my children and sing the songs of the Haggadah, that book which has lifted us for so many years to different times, far away places, and almost imaginary situations. Here I am right back in the thick of Mitzrayim, sitting in my house in isolation, waiting for the craziness to end and for normalcy to return.
Yehi ratzon, may it be His will that I find the faith and courage to stand up during the period of my early redemption, and celebrate the joy among the anxiety, and yearn for that triumphant journey to carry on.