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‘How Can You Eat At A Time Like This?’ Ritual (Especially) When Under Siege

“How can you eat at a time like this?”

I cannot locate the origins of this figure of speech. Perhaps it was first used in a comedy sketch many decades ago, but it has since become a catchall for any criticism of a person who busily pursues low priority activities during a crisis. We imagine the eater chowing down on a five-course gourmet meal inside a besieged bunker or settlement as the bullets fly and the bombs fall. In a comical context, we laugh because the meal being eaten with such gusto seems so out of synch with the grave situation at hand. Beneath that laughter, as we all know, is our anxiety that we are witnessing a very unfunny distortion of priorities in dire circumstances.

Jews just completed the Passover season, with its supreme emphasis on rituals of eating and refraining from certain foods. As we all continued to swim this past month in COVID deaths, the war on Ukraine, and the assault on democracy world-wide, I admit to having stopped in the middle of my Passover food preparations more than once to ask myself:

How can we eat at a time like this?

More broadly, as the world seems to be rapidly going to hell in a hand basket, what possible value could all this obsessive meal prep and leavened bread removal have for us? I winced more than once this past Passover holiday as my fussing over these ritual activities clashed with the horrible instances of global deprivation and starvation about which I read daily in the news.

How could I eat at a time like this?

Even more broadly, how could Jews, Christians, and Muslims exert so much energy to celebrate Passover, Easter and Ramadan – the monotheistic trifecta of food and ritual – when worldwide, millions have no energy because they’re so poor and oppressed? At best, all of this ritual seems useless. At worst, it seems grotesquely insensitive.

This anxious feeling of discordance is an ancient aspect of the human condition, one which elicits a profound response in the biblical account of the first Passover meal. The book of Exodus records God commanding the Israelites to sit down to an elaborate multi-family dinner of roast lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs on the eve of the exodus from Egypt after four hundred years of slavery:

Speak to the community leadership of Israel and say that on the tenth of this month each of them shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household. But if the household is too small for a lamb, let it share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons: you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a yearling male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep watch over it until the fourteenth day of this month; and all the assembled congregation of the Israelites shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they are to eat it. They shall eat the flesh that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs. (Exodus 12:3-9)

On a first reading, we might ask the following questions:

The Israelites had one foot in slavery and the other foot in freedom.

All around them, the Egyptian firstborn were dying of the ominous tenth plague.

As joyous as their anticipated liberation must have been, it must also have been traumatic.

How could God expect the Israelites to eat at a time like this?

The Bible never explicitly answers this question because the meal and its rituals – in fact all rituals of all religions and cultures – provide their own silent answer. My teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman, of blessed memory, was emphatic that the purpose of rituals is to restore our sense of cosmic, communal and personal order and meaning precisely when chaos reigns in times of transition. Thus, at precisely that moment that they teetered dangerously on the line between slavery and freedom, life and death, the Israelites had to force a break in the relentless action, to sit down as families to share a repast that bound them together with mutual respect and dignity; at precisely that moment of headlong rush into a radically new life, they had to dine at their tables, reflecting upon what that moment meant to them. And precisely when life’s disruptions and dangers – large and small – threaten to rob us of our sense of community, our dignity, our histories and our hopes, our rituals in all their forms, fanfare and foods restore to us the “sense sublime” that we possess a proud past, a purposeful present, and a faithful future.

Reflecting upon all this, once again, this past holiday season, I went back to immersing myself in all the preparations and rituals for Passover and the seders. I did them all not because they would change the world around me.  I did them because they remind me that no matter how brutal the world gets and life becomes, I have within me the profound capacity to hope for change in the world.

Nowhere was this insight about the power of ritual more evident to me this past Passover than in the way millions of Ukrainians, under brutal attack with not even the dignity of a ceasefire for respite, celebrated Easter. They prayed in their churches, had their holiday baskets blessed by their priests, and scrounged together food for holiday meals.

How could they eat at a time like this?

The answer, written all over their celebrations under siege, was simple yet powerful.  As human beings fighting for their lives, seeking solace and strength in their faith, its foods and its forms…

How could they not?

I assume that all religions and cultures have their rules about when to suspend observances in circumstances of extreme duress. Judaism tells us to violate the Sabbath to save a person’s life; communities worldwide suspended, altered or cancelled all sorts of time-honored gatherings to keep people from getting sick during the worst of COVID. Yet the persistence of ritual and tradition in our terrible times and places testifies to our enduring quest for meaning and our resilient hope for redemption. It is testimony to the fact that we humans are meant to do more than survive, we are meant to thrive.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. https://jps.org/books/cain-vs-abel/)
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