“How are you doing?” I cannot think of another time in my life when I have been asked that question so many times. I find myself tongue tied. It is difficult to know how to answer because I am so many things at the same time.
The best response I have is that I am feeling matzah.
Not because I have been flattened by the pandemic, although you could say that is also true. No, my matzah-ness runs deeper than that. The meaning of matzah in the seder is paradoxical and profound. What does it symbolize? Even if you never paid attention in Hebrew School, you probably still know that matzah is the bread that our ancestors took with them as they hightailed it out of Egypt. In the rush to leave before Pharaoh changed his mind once again, there was no time to let their bread rise. Matzah is the bread of liberation, the bread that our ancestors brought with them into their new lives as free people.
Or is it?
In the beginning of the Magid section of the Passover Haggadah, we uncover the matzah and say, “This is the poor bread, which our ancestors ate in Egypt.” Matzah is the bread of affliction. It is the simple, unadorned, somewhat tasteless bread that we ate in our lowest moment, the bread of an oppressed people who had despaired of ever being able to have luxuries like delicious food. Matzah is the bread of slavery.
So which is it?
Which is why I am a matzah this year. “How are you doing?” I am doing terribly. I am living at the epicenter of the pandemic. My 79-year-old mother is also here in NYC and I am terrified for her now that it is increasingly clear that were she to fall ill, chances are she would not be treated at the hospital. My 84-year-old father, widowed two months ago, is living alone in Connecticut. He is completely isolated and we are unable to visit him. Even his beloved next door neighbors can’t come by because one of them is immunosuppressed. My college-age children are home and are mourning the indefinite loss of the social milieux which had become their homes and where they had their eyes on their futures, having been returned to their childhood room (which they share) where they daily read increasingly scary headlines in the New York Times about the actual place where they are currently living.
“How are you doing?” I am full of gratitude and even joy. At the school where I work, we rolled up our sleeves, gathered every fiber of strength we collectively possess and devoted ourselves to caring for our students and our community. Teachers have unleashed previously-unrealized powers of creativity in delivering their lessons over Zoom. There are evening programs most nights ranging from seder advice to a symposium on hope which provide moral support and distraction. People are checking up on one another, particularly those living alone, and inviting each other to virtual seders. At home, my daughters served my husband and me homemade dumplings for dinner (they were delicious!) and baked me a 3 layer chocolate cake for my birthday. I have reconnected with friends from camp and high school that I haven’t been in regular touch with for years. Every night at seven I bond with my neighbors for maybe the first time ever as we do what we can to express our appreciation to the many people who are caring for us and for the ill. I check in on my doctor and chaplain friends about the work they are doing and I am completely in awe of their dedication. There have been more blessings and surprises than I can count.
And so, on Wednesday night, with all of my fear and all of my despair and all of my hope and all of my gratitude, I will pull up 4 chairs to our dining room table instead of renting two tables from the hardware store down the block to shoehorn as many guests as possible across the length of the living room. My family and I will eat our matzah, tasting freedom and oppression all rolled up into one flat cracker, knowing that life is like that, the good and the bad inextricably linked in a time of pandemic as they are at all times. The seder ends with the song had gadya, the story of one little goat who is the inciting incident for a breathtaking domino effect of death and destruction, which finally concludes with “Then came the Holy One who killed the angel of death.”
May the Holy One see our affliction and please God help us to kill this angel of death that has descended upon our world. I know that we would all give up the blessings and the surprises in a heartbeat for that.