Shelley and I hope that everyone is enjoying Pesach, the festival of our freedom. This year with the necessary social separation and isolation, I think all of us have felt far from free. It has also been hard to feel free with the uncertainty and sadness wrought by the coronavirus as it crosses all borders and barriers. Yet, despite the uncertainty and even horror caused by COVID-19, there have been some positive aspects of the enforced pause in human affairs, hints of a different kind of freedom upon which we can celebrate and build.
After our first quiet Seder, Passover seemed very strange – just the two of us alone, chanting the Haggadah, and eating the traditional feast – it just didn’t feel festive. While physically, we still were alone on the second night, the feeling could not have been more different. We had zoom connections with nearly fifty different computers, and more than 100 people. I must admit that Shelley and I were pleased not to have to feed them all. Not only were we joined by members of our community here in Tokyo and across Japan, but also by people in Korea, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Even my mother (at 5 AM her time) joined us from New York. More than any recent Seder, this second Zoom virtual Seder felt real, meaningful, and festive. We knew we were not alone as we celebrated, but instead were joined locally and globally by friends and family. Though we hope it will not be necessary for future celebrations, this year, we celebrate the connectivity that Zoom and other platforms provide. They allow us to touch base and feel the presence of friends and loved ones though separated by distance and uncertainty.
Though we have been staying close to home, avoiding any place where crowds might gather, we have taken three daily walks with our dogs. There is a difference on the streets. Like us, many people are staying at home. Schools are canceled, and many parents (at least in our affluent neighborhood) work from home. Now even on weekdays, families are outside playing badminton on the quiet streets, going together for runs and bike rides. Though I know that many parents are finding the homeschooling to be a challenge, I am sure that this period of pause will build stronger relations within many families. In the words of the haftarah we read a week ago, “the hearts of children are being turned towards their parents, and the hearts of the parents towards their children.” As the elderly have become more and more isolated within their homes and senior centres, many of us have also increased our contact, reaching out by phone, and computer many times a week, if not every day. These are essential ways of alleviating the isolation and loneliness. I hope that all these wonderful interactions between generations will not stop when we can leave our homes, but instead be the new normal in the years to come.
There have been noticeable reductions in greenhouse gasses and other pollutants in the atmosphere. While these are short term gains, they do indicate how practical changes in human behavior can be in reducing the degradation of the environment. As we appreciate these improvements, it is my hope that we will have the courage to continue to make the changes necessary for the future health of the world even after we press the restart button. Indeed, scientists have suggested that deforestation and environmental degradation play a causal role in the rise of animal to human viruses, like COVID-19. This adds an even greater impetus to continuing care for the globe, which we share with all flora and fauna.
During the last few months, our spending has gone drastically down. Instead of traveling all over Tokyo on trains and buses, purchasing the latest Apple product, or adding another kokeshi doll or wood carving, we have primarily spent money only on groceries. Our pause in acquisition does not lessen us but instead have the opportunity to focus on that which is truly important and cannot be bought – relationships and connections. COVID-19 has also brought home, yet again, the interconnection between all of us. Therefore, this pause has allowed us to examine how we build on past tzedakah to help even more people in the future. Based on the internet and other media, others to are stepping back from the rampant need to acquire that characterizes our civilization. I hope that in the future, as a society, we can move away from rampant consumerism to global responsibility and increased real human connection.
There have been many heroes during the current crisis, and for the most part, they are not our political leaders; some are obvious like the doctors, nurses and other medical workers, who, at risk to their own lives, are the front line combatants. Others are less obvious but no less heroic. Grocery and shop workers, delivery people and mass transit workers – especially bus drivers – show up to their essential work, and place their lives on the line every day. After the pandemic, will we remember and value the contributions of these brave people? Will we work harder to ensure safe working conditions and proper supplies of protective gear?
I also want to share the wisdom of a friend, Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili. He suggests the following as essential gains we can make. I share his commitment to these values.
a. Humility. We must admit that we are all vulnerable, and we are all helpless in facing global issues. This should lead us to the understanding that we need to foster global compassion and solidarity in order to survive as a civilization not only now but in the years to come.
b. Contemplation. We need to engage in deeper contemplation about our lifestyles and the greedy consumerism, which may endanger not only human lives but the entire planet.
c. Solidarity. We need to realize that without showing and offering solidarity to each other and all of creation, we have no future. We need to forget our petty animosities related to our race, culture, religion, ideology. We need to start working together to make this planet a better place by sharing responsibly for all the gifts of creation.
Passover is our feast of freedom, yet it is not an end but a beginning of the journey of the Jewish people. That journey led to Sinai and beyond.
Our time as slaves in Egypt taught us to be better people – to care for the stranger, the enslaved, and the disadvantaged. I hope that our current time of fear and uncertainty can also lead us to a better future. It, too, can be a positive new beginning of our globally shared journey.