Joy, Hope and Purpose, On This Night of Watching

This year, as no other year in my lifetime, we will have the opportunity to truly fulfill the commandment to observe the Passover seder as if we ourselves left Egypt. More accurately, I feel that I will be observing the seder as our ancestors observed the first Passover that took place in Egypt, on the night of our liberation.  By the time you read this, the entire country of Israel will be placed under curfew.  We will celebrate the seder only with the members of our household.  While I am actually looking forward to this special time with my family, some of us will sadly be alone. Perhaps we will be joining others via our balconies, or Zoom. Our ancestors had one slight allowance, “But if the household is too small for a lamb, then let him share with the neighbor closes to his household (Exodus 12:4).

The first seder was a “Leyl shimurim” (Exodus 12:42).  In modern Hebrew, “shimurim” can be canned food. While some of us may feel like we are trapped inside a can of tuna or vegetables, the intent is a night of vigil, of waiting and watching.  Each Israelite household in Egypt gathered, loins girded and staff in hand, hoping that the blood they dashed on the lintels of their homes would protect them from the unseen Angel of Death passing through the land. It might be appropriate tonight to recite Psalms 91:5-6: “You need not fear the terror by night, or the arrow that flies by day, the plague that stalks in the darkness, or the scourge that ravages at noon.”

I find no comfort in the next verse, “A thousand may fall at your left side, and ten thousand at your right, but it shall not reach you.” I care about those to my left, and to my right.

“Leyl shimurim” can also be understood as “a night of guarding,” or “protecting.”  The Corona crisis forces us to ask the question, “Who do we care about? Whom are we obligated to protect”  This threat, like plagues of ages past, is an opportunity for demagogues to spread fear and hate. They tell us that in a time of crisis we must withdraw into a wagon circle, and protect ourselves. I have been told both by police officers and by settlers that I certainly have Corona because it is rampant among Palestinians. There are Palestinians who feel that way about us.

Circling the wagons is a totally understandable human reaction, as fewer and fewer of us have the bravado of “it can’t happen to me.”  If we are not fearful of the virus itself, many of us are losing our jobs or our businesses. How will be pay our rent, or our mortgage?  We are wondering how we will ever rebuild, even after the day the virus is defeated. We want to ensure that we and those closest to us are as safe and as protected as possible. Closed borders now seem to be an unavoidable necessity. Every country, or even every county, to themselves.

But, in every plague throughout history, there have always been those who demonstrate another, equally human reaction – caring and concern for those beyond our circle of family and friends, or even beyond the borders of our ethnic in-group, or country.  This may be altruism, but it is also self-interest.  Today, laboratories around the world must cooperate to achieve the shared goal of finding a vaccine and/or a cure for our common enemy.  We are also in need of international cooperation to prevent, or at least slow the spread of this virus that knows no borders.

And yes, there are those who simply understand with their intellect and/or their hearts that this crisis demonstrates to just what degree we are one human family. What unites us is far more important than what divides us.  We are in the same boat, called Planet Earth.  We can seek just to protect ourselves. Or, we understand our intersectionality with all of humanity, and act in the way that intersectionality requires.

The midrash teaches us that when Noah emerged from the ark and saw the terrible extent of the destruction, he was terribly angry at God. God asked him why he simply retreated into the ark. Why didn’t he do something to warn others? Why didn’t he argue with God before the flood, as Abraham would later argue on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah?

These are the principles that those of us in the human rights community have always sought to uphold.  We must go beyond our family, class, ethnic and national borders, to watch out for and protect all of humanity (and the planet).

I pray that some of those for whom this crisis has brought that understanding home in a new and more powerful way will retain their newfound insight when this crisis passes.  The fact is, that when the danger threatening to engulf us one day recedes, even those who have retreated into their private ark will need to come out.

So, as many of us will observe this evening a night of watching, may we derive hope and comfort from retelling our near unbelievable story of liberation. Even if, as the Passover Haggadah tells us, we are currently still in Egypt (a seeming contradiction with the command to see ourselves as among those who personally left Egypt), may we have faith that we will be liberated from this virus.   May we understand that the God of all humanity and of all that exists didn’t command us that this be a night of watching simply to teach us to look out for ourselves.  We retell our story of watching tonight, and in every generation, because the God of all humanity desires us to watch out for all. Those to our left, and those to our right. Near and far. In every generation. Now, as in Egypt, God wants us to understand that our particular story is also humanity’s story.

Khag Sameakh-May We Experience Joy, Purpose and Hope On This Night of Watching

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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