It has been a long time since the Jewish People were all under threat at the same time. We suffered pogroms in Europe, farhuds in Iraq, and other persecutions – but there was always another Jewish community less affected. In fact, the Jews at risk often turned to other communities for help. Not this year. As the world is shut down by the Coronavirus, Jewish communities are all affected. Unfortunately, Passover promises to be drastically different from previous ones.
My family members who had planned on traveling to Israel from the US were forced to change their plans, as were many thousands of others. Across Israel, people are preparing smaller Seders than usual, with many set to be completely on their own for a holiday viewed as an excuse for large family gatherings. This highlights how Jewish customs and religious rituals – from communal prayers to weddings – have fallen victim to COVID-19.
In some ways, this Passover seems more like enslavement than redemption. A month has passed since Israel placed restrictions on workplaces, shut down schools and ordered people to home confinement. Other Jewish communities in the Diaspora, including England, Italy and New York, are celebrating in the shadow of funerals no one can attend. As of March 31, 44 rabbis had died around the world as a result of the virus. It is hard, really hard, to be festive at times like this.
However, Passover is a symbol of overcoming obstacles, hardships and challenges. In fact, the Israelite’s Exodus from Egypt, the core of the Passover Seder story and a cornerstone of Jewish identity, has become one of the most inspirational stories for human struggles.
When 4,500 Holocaust survivors attempted to breach the British blockade of Mandatory Palestine in 1947, they named their ship Exodus. That single word echoed the Passover story and sent a message to the world. This story also inspired the quarter-million people who marched on Washington D.C. on a cold December Sunday morning, carrying signs and placards reading “Let My People Go!” for the world to see and hear. That fight for Soviet Jewry was, for millions, a modern-day struggle to get the Jews out of Egypt.
Not only Jews were inspired by the Passover story. The slogan from the rallies for Soviet Jewry was heard in the United States over 100 years earlier when slaves sang and prayed for their own liberation. The song Go Down Moses, is a great example of how their struggle was inspired. With a tune attributed to 19th-century slaves, its message is simple and familiar: Let my people go!
Passover and the Exudos are powerful because they describe the collective’s liberation and redemption. It is not an individual struggle, but rather a fight for the group, for the nation. It is when our collective identity was forged. There are many examples of this in the traditional Passover Seder, which starts with participants recounting the story of Abraham’s journey to the Land of Israel, continues with the Israelite’s enslavement in Egypt and ends with their journey towards freedom and the promised land.
The COVID-19 crisis has made it easier for us to relate to the idea of collective liberation. All of us are in the same boat, sinking or floating together. No man is an island. The actions of every individual impact the wellbeing of many, for better or for worse. Unlike other holidays in the Jewish calendar, Passover is not about our individual troubles or personal aspirations. It is a holiday of hope for something greater than us.
Passover is associated with the liberation of nations, freedom from slavery, and history-altering miracles. But it is not a holiday about history. It is about understanding that, even in the darkest hour, things can be better. The Passover Seder does not end with what happened. The final part is about dreams that have yet to come true, and it concludes with the call for “Next year in Jerusalem,” an age-old pledge of hope.
The world has overcome horrific crises in the past, including pandemics and health challenges. As a Nation, we have rebuilt ourselves time and again, from disasters and ashes, eventually returning from exile to Israel. This year is an opportunity to remember our ongoing collective journey and the fact that we are all intertwined. Our togetherness, especially during challenging times, is a source of strength. As iconic Israeli singer Meir Ariel famously sung: “We overcame Pharoah, we will overcome this…” That is a message we should all remember. Next year will be better.