I have a confession to make. I started the international brouhaha over Zooming the Pesach Seder. Given these unprecedented circumstances, my halachic knowledge and experience led me to believe that we could find an acceptable solution for those cut off from their loved ones. And so I posed the question to poskim (rabbinic authorities) in Israel. The query went around the halachic table, from one rabbi to another, and then across the globe. And finally, a response was issued. A response that will be talked about for years to come, some criticizing, others praising, but everyone offering an opinion. Did the rabbis get it right?
On the Seventh Day of Pesach, we commemorate the salvation of the Splitting of the Red Sea. Our people have always been blessed with a diversity of opinion, and the scene just prior to our miraculous crossing was no different. With the Egyptians advancing at the rear and the raging waters in front, the Children of Israel were confounded with how to proceed. Our Sages describe the various viewpoints expressed at that tense moment: One faction wanted to fight the Egyptians. Another suggested that martyrdom was the proper response, and wanted to drown in the Red Sea rather than face persecution or death at the hands of their erstwhile oppressors. And a final group proposed waving the proverbial white flag and returning to slavery in Egypt. At least that way, they contended, they could be assured of survival, despite the compromises such a life would entail. Ultimately, Hashem instructed Moshe to split the Sea, and we walked through on dry land, a miraculous escape nobody could have anticipated.
We are living in unimaginable times. For the vast majority of Jews, this Pesach has been the most challenging of their lives. Surrounded by overwhelming suffering and tragedy, many are struggling with their religious response. There are those who propose going to battle with the Egyptians, no matter the cost to human life. Those are the people who insist on gathering for minyan, even outside the locked doors of their shuls. Nothing will stop their resolve and commitment. If God has decreed that they die in battle, then that is the Divine will. But they must do whatever they can to fight till the bitter end.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are others who believe that it’s not worth the fight. Let’s just jump into the Sea and drown our Judaism. Social media has dubbed such a perspective as the decision to ‘pass over’ Passover. Why go to any hassle, when it all seems so futile? If this is freedom, they’re not interested.
The final group sits somewhere in between. They believe that the only way to survive is to wave the white flag and find ways to make compromises, just to get through it all. They point fingers at the religious leadership and demand that they’re not doing enough to ease the suffering of the people in the midst of this heart-breaking and soul-crushing existential crisis.
Just like the scene that presented itself to our ancestors, the situation appears bleak. No individual or group should be criticized for their response, as they cry out in anguish.
What happens in the end? Moshe is feeling the pain of the people. He turns his eyes Heavenward for an answer. And God responds, “Speak to the Children of Israel: They shall travel!” The Sea splits, we get through the crisis, and our enemies are obliterated.
Friends, very soon, the Sea will split before us. We will emerge on the other side. The enemy seeking to destroy us will be eradicated. And we will break out into song, just as our forefathers did after they witnessed their miraculous salvation. Until the Sea splits, we must maintain our determination and dedication to our heritage and tradition. With our shuls and schools closed, a limited availability of Passover products, and the challenges of social isolation, we may need to be a little creative with our provisional solutions. But we must never confuse religious creativity with surrender to the enemy. As a nation that has traversed the pages of history, we are no strangers to challenging Pesach circumstances. This year, just like every year before it, we will strive to celebrate and achieve the most beautiful, inspirational, and observant Pesach that we can.
As a relative newcomer to the UK, I want to share how impressed I am with the rabbinate of Anglo-Jewry. Britain boasts a fine cadre of religious leaders – rabbis and rebbetzens – dedicated and attuned to the emotional, psychological, material, and spiritual needs of their respective flocks. I have watched these rabbinic pastors work tirelessly over the past year and a half, and particularly over the last few weeks, to provide their congregants with sustenance and guidance in all aspects of their lives, as well as the hope and faith to endure the calamity. They’ve had to reinvent the way they demonstrate their care and compassion, learn new technologies to offer comfort, strength and religious services and education, all whilst dealing with an ever-changing landscape of rules and regulations.
We look forward to a brighter future, to a Splitting of the Red Sea very soon. How will the Jewish people remember the activities of their rabbis during these dark days? Hopefully, they won’t judge them on their ability to cut corners or bend tradition to near-breaking point, because that’s what people less attuned to the sacred mechanics of halacha were demanding.
Without a shadow of doubt, I know that people will talk for years to come of the dedication and compassion their congregational rabbis displayed in the depths of darkness. They will be judged on their ability to step up to the plate and provide our three pillars: Torah education, communal prayer gatherings (albeit virtually), and, above all, the acts of kindness, generosity, and care, for those who are suffering.
I am proud to say that I posed the Zoom question. But I am even prouder to say that when the consensus rabbinic response to the query was, ‘No,’ I accepted the decision of those far more steeped in learning and the halachic process than me. When we ask a question, we’re not always going to receive the answer we want. It takes humility and sagacity to acknowledge and embrace the response to such a consequential query. We accept the ruling with the gratitude for rabbinic leaders who – much as they would have like to have said ‘yes’ – were obliged to respond responsibly and with the weight of three millennia of tradition on their shoulders. Undoubtedly, such a decision wasn’t made casually; the poskim would have perused volumes before arriving at their difficult, but necessary, conclusion.
I feel incredibly blessed to have such fine colleagues here in the British rabbinate. Men and women dedicated to the flourishing of Yiddishkeit in this country and beyond. May the Almighty part the waters speedily, so that our amazing rabbis and rebbetzens can return to serving our people face-to-face and in the flesh. Wishing everyone a safe and healthy chag kasher v’sameach.