This past Shabbat, I carefully held the two designated pieces of Passover matza as I made the ritual blessing over “bread” of the meal. At that very instant, I paused briefly in a moment pregnant with meaning. As I looked deeply into the matza, I suddenly felt very humble. This is not always easy for me.
Somehow the experience of a world-wide pandemic had made its way through my soul and into my hands that were about to “partake of the bread of affliction and freedom.” I have held matza and offered this blessing prior to eating for more than half a century, yet something so different was present in the “air” that almost defied words. This moment led me on an internal journey of wonderment.
Too often, we move through our busy lives without enough intent. Too easily, many rituals of day to day life, whether spiritual or more mundane, become rote. Yet, with this current pandemic, our world has become smaller, and it has been turned upside down again and again. This new reality of a world pandemic beckons us to pause and look into and beyond ourselves.
As I celebrate, the uniquely Jewish holiday of the development of our peoplehood, I cannot help but wonder about the message of this year. Passover is a Jewish holiday. Yet, I somehow cannot help but become caught up in our world story. This season, at least three major religions have suffered disruptions in their freedom to celebrate their holiday. The Jewish Passover, the Christian Easter and the Muslim Ramadan are all touched and wounded by a mysterious virus.
As Jews, the holiday began Wednesday at nightfall with the Passover Seder, a highly ritualized meal in which the story of the Exodus from Egypt is told. Many whom are not Jewish are familiar with the famed The Prince of Egypt, a 1998 American musical drama produced by DreamWorks Animation. The film is an adaption of the story in the Book of Exodus of Moses leading the Jews from Egypt.
At the Seder, participants read from a Haggadah (the printed and illustrated text of the story). Over the years, a cornucopia of Haggadahs have sprung up, each with a slightly different slant for a modern audience. There is even a Hogwarts’s Haggadah. Although there are many words and many complicated rituals, children are meant to be the center of attention in order to pass on the tradition to the next generation. The youngest present begins the seder chanting four important questions; the essence of which is, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
This year this “different night” sadly took on many other shades of meaning. Because of the need for social distancing and quarantine many of us were without our children or grandchildren. And some of us were alone. Yet, perhaps the holiday that highlights freedom from slavery forced us to look inside for the true meaning of freedom. Here I was particularly touched by former Russian Refusenik, Natan Sharansky’s message on quarantine and freedom that went viral. In very simple and straightforward language, he spoke of finding freedom within, while being imprisoned in solitary confinement.
I must confess. I have a favorite Passover Haggadah that I have used every year for a long time, The Holistic Haggada by Michael L. Kagan. The subtitle, “How Will I Be Different this Passover Night?” is a play on the traditional question. Kagan emphasizes the experiential meaning of the rituals. Much like the modern practice of mindfulness, he emphasizes the need for both “being” and “deepening.” My husband, a physician, sometimes teasingly threatens to hide my Haggadah because it is so far from his more rational and scientific core. And although he might not readily admit it, he sometimes even becomes curious about what my Haggadah says.
Our Seder this year, was very different, in spite of the inclusion of my traditional Haggadah. We were only four from our nuclear family. One of my daughters was forced to remain at her home in Jerusalem with roommates. And we were without my oldest daughter and son-in-law and our two young grandchildren. Thus, for the first time in almost thirty years, we had a more “rational” seder with a lot of words and less “experience.” In spite of it all, I enjoyed it. But I was troubled – was I changed?
I wasn’t sure. Yet, the seeds of an answer came to me in that brief moment when I held the two matzot on Friday night. Without any forethought, I met the moment of humility. I asked myself, “Who am I?”
I gazed at this simple unleavened bread made only flower and water, and I remembered a lesson I had heard so many times. Matza is the poor person’s bread made in haste as the Jewish people hurriedly ran away from their enslavement in Egypt over 3000 years ago. The essence of the holiday is the distinction between hametz (leavened bread) which is forbidden for seven days in Israel (eight outside of Israel) and matza, which we are commanded to eat in commemoration of our journey to freedom. We are taught that the leavening is a symbol for haughtiness. After all, it is what makes the bread rise, much like the inflation we too often meet within ourselves as modern women and men of faith. In contrast, the matza reminds us to remember our humble roots and to remove this haughtiness from our hearts.
A year ago as we celebrated this Passover, I am guessing none of us would have imagined this pandemic. I am 61 years of age and thankfully I have never experienced anything like it.
It is very sad that people are sick and dying and that the world economy is challenged beyond belief. Yet, as a psychologist, I also hear the other side. As people slow down, they begin to ask of themselves hard questions. What is the essence of life? What do we really need to survive? And what have we neglected and placed on a back burner in pursuit of our busy-ness? I hear of tragedy, but I also hear of renewal and hope and the humanity of humankind.
My husband and I have an ongoing but friendly debate each year. I focus on the individual experience and journey of the Passover story. And I always wonder at the connection between our Jewish story and the universal nature of our experience. In contrast, my husband is much more focused on the communal and particularistic traditions. This year, we seem to have it all. Many of us are forced to delve inside and find our own individual core of being as we are alone. Some of us were truly alone in our Seder. And most of all, how can we ignore the world experience that we all share so deeply? We are not and can no longer be an island.
I recently heard a Zoom pre-Pesah talk by a rabbi I like and respect, the Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Rabbi Sacks is an international religious leader, philosopher, and award- winning author. I grew up learning a Talmudic saying, All Israel is responsible one for the other.” This had always attested to our need as a people to care for each other in times of needs and happiness. Yet, Rabbi Sacks reflected upon how there is need for a new saying, כל בני אדם ערבים זה לזה- All humankind is responsible one for the other. As a woman of faith, I do not believe our world is chaos or without intent. Rather I believe in our partnership with our Creator to find and create meaning.
In the face of our current pandemic, as I continue to hold the experience of the matzah, I hope that that I will remain humble. We are all in this together and this is a powerful message in this holiday season. Yet, that means that our humbleness must not stop us from doing what we can to make the world a better and kinder and healthier place.