This week we celebrate the festival of Passover (Pesach), retelling the 3,000-year-old story of the 10 plagues and how the Angel of Death killed the firstborn Egyptian males but passed over the Jewish homes.
However, this Pesach Seder when we sit around the table and recite the “Ma Nishtana” (why this night is different to all other nights), we will retell how the “Angel of Death” and its accomplice COVID-19 killed over 2.7million people and infected another 122 million.
The miraculous story of the Jewish people’s plight for freedom from Egypt and the exceptional story of the freedom of the 5.1 million vaccinated Israelis will be overshadowed by the loss of loved ones and the emotional and economic traumas suffered by the whole world due to the pandemic.
Two weeks later, we will add salt to our emotional wounds by mourning the six million Jews that perished in the Holocaust and then a week later we will commemorate the 24,000 Israelis who died defending their country. That same night we will celebrate Israel’s Independence day.
Why do we schedule such an emotional rollercoaster ride every year?
Are we setting a Jewish training ground for emotionally resilient generations?
How do you mourn death and celebrate life on the same day or the same week?
Recently, my brother attended the wedding of his niece in the most unlikely place – the oncology ward at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv. The mother of the bride, Rita, learned the day before that her cancer was terminal and that she had just one week to live. Her daughter, Melanie, was engaged to get married two weeks before so with all her strength for the joy of life, Rita told her daughter to marry ASAP. They decided the next day which happened to be on the festival of Purim – the day we retell the 2000-year-old story of the saving of the Jewish people from the wicked Haman who was planning to kill all the Jews of Persia.
In a whirlwind of emotions, family and friends rallied together to fulfill Rita’s dying wish and prepare a beautiful wedding in just one day. Invitations, a Rabbi, a Ketuba, a wedding dress, the hairdresser, flowers, photographer, Doctor’s consent, etc, and let us not forget the COVID-19 restrictions.
24 hours later, Rita, eyes glowing, dressed in white in her hospital bed joined her daughter under the chuppah. Surrounded by her family and friends, doctors and nurses, Melanie clasped her flowers in one hand and her mother’s hand in the other. Tears of sadness, pain, and fear mingled with tears of pride and joy.
I wish I had known Rita better. In all the family gatherings I met her, she was that vivacious Brazilian woman always ready to Samba with life.
In fact, for the past 5 years, Rita had been teaching the dance of life called Biodanza – a system that integrates music, movement, and authentic interactions to provide experiences of intense perception of being alive in the here-and-now. Each session helps participants to recover their joy and vitality and to celebrate the sacredness of life.
Between the many rounds of chemotherapy, Rita would show up to classes ready to motivate and inspire her students to feel their free-moving bodies feel the spirit of joy.
In her passing, as in her life, Rita was surrounded by song, dance, love, and joy. On a perfect spring day, one week after the wedding, Rita was buried in flowers surrounded by her family, friends, and many people from the Biodanza community.
It may sound strange but I have never experienced such a beautiful funeral. Tears and smiles and love beaming from everyone Rita had touched. As the Chevra Kadisha respectfully left, a spontaneous circle formed with singing. Songs of angels and gratitude to the joys of life – Gracias A La Vida!
The challenges of the past year have forced people to rethink their values and priorities. Daily news of the number of deaths by corona has created fear and anxiety. Online meditation and mindfulness courses are flourishing. The world is different and this Seder night will be very different from all other nights.
This week, as we read the Haggadah and talk about the deadly impact the pandemic had on our lives, we should take a moment to think of all those families who are grieving and to be grateful to the family, friends, and health care workers who helped us get through this historic global nightmare.
When we sing “Echad Mi Yodea” (who knows 1 ) and get to number 11 – the stars in the sky that Joseph dreamt of, we should be thanking our lucky stars that we were spared from the coronavirus.
So this week as we breathe in the fresh spring air and feel our renewed freedom while picking up the crumbs of matza and our lives, may we be mindful of the miracle of our breath, and take the opportunity to dance and sing with the Angel of Life.