No doubt come the spring of 2023 a group of scientist and doctors, and representatives of the WHO and the CDC and the ECDC, and tenured professors hoping to make a headline, will go off on some junket on a lovely island to congratulate themselves and discuss how to do this better next time. They’ll decry the failures of the political infrastructure, call for more money and education, and then go for a swim and a great time will be had by all. But not the Jewish community. If we do this right, if we start thinking about the end now, we have a chance to really make this moment mean something.
Once upon a time the Jewish people dedicated the first Beit Hamikdash – the temple prepared for by David and built by Solomon. There was a seven day celebration in Jerusalem with plentiful food, amazing things to see and eat and wine and festivity. That national celebration was followed by the Sukkot holiday and another week of feasting and celebration. It was an amazing time to be alive, I’m sure.
The interesting thing is that 5 days before the onset of Sukkot is Yom Kippur. It’s not a sad day, but it is a serious day, noted by fasting and other types of self-affliction. But that year the Jewish people did not celebrate Yom Kippur with fasting. The historic dedication and celebration of the Temple overrode the annual holiday. Not only is there no hint of Divine disapproval of this anywhere in the bible or in the plentiful Rabbinic writings, our tradition is that G-d agreed, or even required this practice that year. Let’s speculate together. Let’s imagine that a day or two before Yom Kippur notices are starting to go up around Jerusalem, and royal announcers go into the surrounding camp to make known, “By Royal Decree – by the authority of King Solomon, and the Prophet Nathan, and under the guidance of the Great Beit Din, the celebrations of the temple dedication shall continue uninterrupted and there shall be no fasting on Yom Kippur.” I wonder what The-Guys-In-Shul said. You now those guys. The ones that always have a question ready for the rabbi when he tries to push our observance forward. The guys always ready with a joke to take the seriousness out of any moment. You know those guys? The, “I also learned in yeshivah and who does he think he is to tell me what to do I also finished Shas, see my ticket stub” guys. In my heart I know for sure those guys stood around the notice and came up with 15 reasons why they should fast and another 15 for how they could technically be fasting but also look like they were celebrating. I don’t know what those guys ended up doing, but I know they were missing the point. Because in that rare and precious moment, what G-d wanted from us was not to focus on connection through fasting, but rather connection to Him through joy.
There was another great moment, just under 500 years later. This time we were living in the Persian Empire and there have been some successes, sure, but some frustrations too. Though it might not have been widely known by the Persians, every Jew knew that the new queen was in fact a lovely and modest Jewess – related (somehow) to the great sage Mordechai, himself a member of the royal retinue. It was only days before Pesach that year when royal edicts came from the palace alerting Persian citizens to be ready on the determined day to fight the enemies of the king. Though it was not explicit who the enemy was, there was enough “dog whistle” language that we knew it was us, and the right wing nationalists knew it was us, and there was great confusion and despair. What was going on? How could this happen to us? And what about Esther?
Perhaps we expected arms or training. Perhaps we expected transport back to Judea. But what actually came from Esther was a notice – you must fast. An unprecedented and incredibly difficult fast – 3 days and 3 nights. It would bring many to the brink of death. It would challenge even the most fit among us. Immediately it had to have been known that the 3 days of fasts (according to our sages) overlapped with the first night of Passover. That year there was no Matzah, no wine, not even the Maror. Only fasting. Just imagine those Guys In Shul. They must certainly have been thinking, “How could the rabbinic enactment to fast take precedence over the biblical mitzvah of matzah?” They might have even reasoned that the afikoman at the seder has such mystical properties, and is such a lofty service of the Hashem, that it would be better to eat the Matzah and absorb the spirituality of that mitzvah than to, what? Do nothing? To Fast? Listening to the leadership in that moment must have been a tremendous challenge. But the key was to know that in that moment in history G-d didn’t want us to connect through eating. Rather we were required to connect to him through fasting. And it worked! Esther’s plan brought about G-d’s benevolence and we were saved.
I know it might seem hard to believe that we are in a moment as lofty as the dedication of the Temple or as historic as the plight of the Jews in Esther’s time – but I believe we are. Our sages have told us that in this moment we are forbidden to be in shul. (I know it sounds like a joke. I told my students in 11th grade that one day they would tell their grandchildren that once all rabbis told us we couldn’t go to shul and we had to daven at home and no one could hear the Torah being read. Not the bad guys. The rabbis! And it will sound so ridiculous that little Yanky and Chanaleh will think it’s just Crazy Grandpa Joe telling his wild stories again.) Fine. I accept that we can’t go to shul. To be sure, the Guys-In-Shul are alive and well, and ignoring the sages of our day just as they did in bygone years. But the vast majority of our people have heeded the call to stay home, and it’s as difficult as eating on Yom Kippur that year in Jerusalem or fasting at the seder in Shushan. We can’t connect by going to shul – but what’s on the other side of that equation? What IS the way for us to connect with now?
One of the most difficult realities of our moment is that this world is so clearly devoid of prophecy and a real ability to know that with confidence. I offer this thought to the universe in the hope it will resonate in another’s heart.
The upcoming holiday of Pesach is fundamentally different than every other holiday. On Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana the main work of the day is done in shul. On Shavuot you might argue that the special service of the day is done in the study hall. But Pesach – all the mitzvot are centered around the home. Telling over the story, eating the matzah, even the eating of the Pesach sacrifice are structured to be at home with your family. It is unique. Though we might spend Shabbat with our families, the Torah doesn’t structure the day that way. Here the Torah tells us that the Pesach offering was to be eaten with or families, with our children asking questions. And not with our children there begrudgingly. We want them there joyfully! Our sages teach us to change things up, to give out sweets, to do whatever it takes to make the seder fun, interactive, and a special time with our children. (Why this is specific for Pesach is a different dvar Torah.)
Until this moment in all of Jewish history the only other time we were commanded to serve with our families was the Pesach seder. So I think that is where we should be drawing our insights. I think this is the special avoda (service) that G-d is sending us today. Usually we must serve and connect in the shul and with the congregation. But today we must serve with our families. The seder is about faith and understanding, “What this service is to you.” With our families we have a chance to teach of our faith and perhaps even to rediscover it. We have a chance to learn what this service is to us, really. And just like the sages teach us that just reading the liturgy does not a seder make, so too we need to make these moments joyful, pleasant, moments of growth. We are all in the longest seder in history. We have to use it to inspire and be inspired. To enjoy and spread joy. To understand where we came from and where we’re going. Let’s not be those Guys In Shul who missed the whole point. It’s insufficient to focus on what we’re giving up. We need to focus on what we are being called to do now.