Just over half a year has now passed since the start of the Jewish year, whose high holidays are also known as the Days of Awe.
One of the climactic sections of those most sacred days’ liturgy relates:
“On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: how many will pass away and how many will be born, who will live and who will die… who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague… who will be serene and who will be tormented, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.”
Barely into a new decade – 2020 on the civil calendar, 5780 for Jews – we now approach another apex of the Jewish year, Passover, in decidedly unfamiliar circumstances.
During our commemoration of the exodus, we recall the ten plagues that befell Egypt before it set free its enslaved Jews – including, ultimately, the plague of the Egyptian firstborn, which from Pharaoh’s throne to the humblest of citizens prompted “a great outcry in Egypt, for there was no home in which there was no dead.”
Now, our society faces a new plague – a pandemic, one to which none are immune.
Passover has come to exemplify the coming together of the most basic unit of human bonds – the family – but a pandemic is set apart in its rupture of the social fabric, even at the individual family level. This year, many will be forced to hold their Seder in solitude.
In terms of Jewish religious life, COVID-19 has quickly spurred the most significant disruption (with the possible exception, in Israel, of the 1973 Yom Kippur War) since the end of the Holocaust, whose 75th anniversary will soon take place.
In the global scope of the current outbreak, the impairing of public religious practice not only hearkens back to the Spanish flu of a century ago but may be, plainly, unprecedented.
Preempting the intensive spring cleaning that is customary before Passover – reflecting what should be a deep cleansing also of the soul – we now adjust to hyper-hygienic habits meant to ward off the novel coronavirus.
For many observant Jews, this moment has yielded a first-ever experience of inability to worship communally in a synagogue, particularly on a major holiday. This alone can be traumatic.
Of course, though, religion is just one of the virtually limitless aspects of life affected by a threat that is both invisible and insidious.
During the Seder this year, perhaps there will be extra resonance in the tradition of shedding wine drops from our glasses in a gesture of compassion – even amid celebration – for Egyptians who suffered in the freeing of the Jews from their yoke.
Next week, we can have in mind all those who now suffer. We can think of both the young and old, those living alone and with others, those in hospitals and those without access to hospitals, those with preexisting illness and with brand-new illness, those unemployed and those who will be unemployed, those stuck at home, those without a home, the bereaved and those on the front lines.
This is simpler to do meaningfully now – because “they” could easily become “we.”
After entering a period during which everything from food and toilet paper to the wellbeing of public officials and healthcare workers has been called into question, when we recite the Seder song “Dayenu” – giving praise for each of the blessings bestowed upon us – the looming hardship will make it easier not to take those blessings for granted.
How much we would now value the ability to shake a hand, give a hug, have a guest, go to the market, press an elevator button, receive a package or rub our own eyes in the morning without weighty existential calculations!
If nothing else, in an age when many have fixated on individualism, a pandemic forces a deeper appreciation of community and companionship, collective action and solidarity. A pandemic brings sharp urgency to the words from Ethics of the Fathers, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?”
Passover reminds us of a central motif of the Jewish, and human, saga: redemption – but one can only be redeemed from some sort of affliction. Passover exults in liberation, but it mustn’t be forgotten that the sudden and dramatic exodus from Egypt followed hundreds of years of abject torment.
In Judaism, meaning can be found even in its ordering of the day: “there was evening, [then] there was morning.” Light follows, and is given its very meaning by, darkness.
Until morning breaks, Jews’ prayers take the form of appreciation of all that we do still have, of appeals for deliverance and of stubborn confidence that deliverance will come: “Next year in Jerusalem.” Indeed, two thousand years after dispersion from it, Jews in our time began to be restored to the city at the heart of our collective consciousness.
Soberingly, we are taught that not only individuals, but also nations, are subject to vulnerability, to consequences and the shifting tides of history. In these days of awe, we can recall that none of history’s greatest empires have reigned supreme permanently; most are now not in existence. Only time will tell how the world is altered, even reordered, by a storm as substantial as the current one.
Nonetheless, in this month of salvation, we renew our faith in its arrival again.
When the children of Israel settled in Egypt, the patriarch Jacob – alternately known as Israel – was told, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid of descending to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up.” Tribulation was part of the journey, part of the reality, as much as that can thoroughly elude our will and our grasp.
“‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts,’” the prophet Isaiah relays. But he goes on: “So says the Lord, ‘Keep justice and practice righteousness, for My salvation is near to come, and My benevolence to be revealed.’”
For the first time in most of our lives, many of us are now confined, limited in our mobility, our sense of mastery over our existence. In the diminishing of that unbridled freedom – certainly of being carefree – let us do what we can to support each other, and to take comfort in the promise of return to a more cherished liberty.