On Passover we discuss freedom from slavery. Most of us alive in the United States – especially now as Holocaust survivors are so few – have never been slaves. So year after year, the fundamentally free recline around a table reliving ancestry of slavery, paying homage to victims of sex trafficking and other forms of modern slavery, and pontificating about metaphorical “slavery” like workaholism, materialism, bad habits. This year, for the first time, Seder hosts and attendees are not free, or at least much less free than usual. We are mostly homebound. We cannot ask all that are hungry to come and eat.
In fundamental principle, government is a balancing act between safety and freedom. We learn at Seder that our freedom is worth risks to our safety. Right? Nothing in the Haggadah is so simple! The Passover story does not mean that unbridled freedom is worth any cost, nor that we should always prioritize freedom over safety. But I think it fair to say that our Seder admonishes us not to forget one when considering the other, and to take neither for granted.
Our government’s response to a terrifying pandemic has now swung the balance decisively toward safety (as have many worldwide). This concept I can understand–the disease poses a genuine and significant safety risk, one it would be irresponsible to disregard. Those who wield power in good faith to address that safety risk cannot be faulted merely for doing so. And there are good arguments that the extent of the measures imposed became necessary at some point, even if they are only necessary because of previous negligence and/or a fraught healthcare system and comparative lack of social security.
Where I struggle is in the seeming lack of clear-headed acknowledgement (in the United States, anyway) of the unprecedented infringement of freedoms and the devastating consequences that infringement brings. Were it not for domino-like normalization cresting over a wave of digital media panic, these sorts of government restrictions would have enraged us. But initially, as “lockdown” orders came out, many criticized them only for not going far enough. Social media became a virtual police force, waving flags with a graphic of a curve, constantly patrolling for misbehavior, shaming it, and then demanding (often successfully) that the government or the business owner impose more restrictions. Regrettably, freedom then entered the U.S. narrative as part of drawing the typical two-party battle lines (whatever one thinks about the current president, he has quite a way of getting people to pick horses). Many who otherwise saw the issue in a nuanced way a few weeks ago fled into their respective political camps, and typical polarization ensued. As my grandma said, this situation has brought out the best and the worst in humans.
After wandering for weeks in the desert, the children of Israel complained to Moses and Aaron multiple times, implying that they were better off protected from starvation and thirst, even if it meant they were enslaved. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat, when we ate bread to our fill! For you have brought us out into this desert, to starve this entire congregation to death.” God then provides for basic needs (underscoring the importance of preserving life), but the protestations continue. Ultimately the Israelites’ failure to value freedom sufficiently leads God to force them to wander for 40 years in the desert–those who fled Egypt never experienced the destination, dying of old age along the journey. Only their descendants reached the promised land.
No doubt there are many divergent ways one could apply Torah logic here (and as an aside, much gratitude to our rabbis for making all the very tough halachic decisions they’ve been forced to make). One might liken our quarantine to slavery, and our fear of the pandemic akin to the Israelites’ wishing to live out their days in Egypt where they didn’t have to fear death in the wilderness. Or, one might interpret these verses to mean that the lockdown orders are the wilderness, and those of us who fail to abide or complain about the lockdowns are prolonging our journey. Perhaps the takeaway is just that reactionary kvetching detracts from shared goals, and that we should embrace humility and faith as we wander.
The Haggadah will not give us the answers to this crisis. It merely reminds us that we should ask the questions.