Balancing darkness and light as Passover 2020 approaches

As the weeks are turning into months, the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic is getting more and more difficult to bear. It is not simply that we are cooped up in our homes, frustrated and stressed, without an outlet to forget what’s going on around us.

It is not the loss of comfort that is taking the largest emotional and spiritual toll.

We see and hear how the pandemic is hitting very close to home. Our loved ones and neighbors are getting sick. Our sense of impotence is getting stronger. When we are told that we can’t attend funerals or support our neighbors in their time of loss, we might understand intellectually, but we can’t make sense of it.

To paraphrase the words in Proverbs, “Our angst has come like a storm, and the calamity comes like a whirlwind.”

We say to ourselves, “This should be a time of year when we increase our joy. We are approaching the Passover holiday. How can this be happening now?”

It reminds me of the verse in Exodus, “Now the Israelites went up chamushim out of the land of Egypt.” Simply, chamushim means armed – even though God was going to fight their battles, the Israelites were armed and ready. This reading reflects our feelings today – we pray and rely on God to end this calamity, but each one of us is doing whatever we can to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

The Sages, however, also recognize that chamushim can mean a fraction of five (chamesh), such as one-fifth, 1/50, or one in 500. According to this understanding, the verse is saying that a minority of the Israelites left Egypt. Why would so few leave? The Sages answer that many Jews died in Egypt during the plague of darkness.

My thoughts do not go to why they died or how this could have happened. My thoughts go straight to thinking how the survivors could have dealt with such a juxtaposition of opposites. Family and friends died in a world of darkness and almost immediately thereafter they celebrate and praise God for redeeming them from Egypt.

The take-away message seems to be that we must find a way to balance our emotions. Not by suppressing them, but by recognizing them and using them to make good decisions with a full – even if heavy – heart. Like the Israelites who left Egypt, we must find joy and meaning in the process of our redemption, even though it is difficult and the path is not clear.

We must also not ignore the world – and the people – around us. At the Passover seder, there is a custom when mentioning the Ten Plagues to take a drop out of the cup of wine as each plague is mentioned and to wipe the leftover wine from our fingers rather than taste the liquid. This is meant to instill empathy and compassion, so that we do not enjoy the pain that others experience – even symbolically. This year, when my immediate family reaches this point at the seder, I will undoubtedly give it an additional meaning. I will see it as a way to remind myself that the world is still experiencing the current plague, and we must be sure to arm ourselves – with prayer and concern for others – so that we can see our way out of it.

As stated in the Sifra (Kedoshim), “A man who makes peace between himself and his wife, between family and family, between city and city, between country and country, and between one people and another — how much more so will calamity not befall him!”

About the Author
Ira Bedzow, Ph.D. is the Director of the MirYam Institute Project in International Ethics and Leadership and Head of the Unit of the International Chair in Bioethics (World Medical Association Cooperation Centre) at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, Emory University.
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