“Devote less to your food and your drink and spend more on your house, as one’s house is a better investment than food.”
My one-bedroom apartment in New York City has good closet space, and a large balcony that faces south. It is a luxury by city standards to have so much, but by any other standard, it is small. I have lived in small spaces since I moved to New York, but the city served as my living room and it was infinite. My living room became smaller and more confined over the past year as I barely left my apartment from March through July. I fear that as my world became more insular, I have as well.
Today’s Daf Yomi continues with its advice on how to live a righteous life. We are told to avoid rich foods like expensive geese and chicken, because you will “develop a taste for luxuries.” The pre-pandemic life I built for myself was centered around meeting friends at restaurants and coincidentally, one of my favorites was a restaurant owned by a French chef that only served chicken. And I love chicken! We are told instead that one should “eat inexpensive food siting in a comfortable place,” which was certainly the case during the long months of sheltering-in-place, when I learned to appreciate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on matza.
This is the wisdom of Rabbi Yehuda, which was repeated by Rabba bar bar Hana and Rabbi Yohanan. Rabbi Yehuda also offered this wise advice, which has become especially meaningful during the past year: “Devote less to your food and your drink and spend more on your house, as one’s house is a better investment than food.” And certainly, my home became more important to me than ever during the pandemic and I spent more of my earned income on cleaning supplies than meals out.
It has been one year, since the great Passover zoom experiment was undertaken. I had Passover reservations last year at one of my favorite restaurants in Philadelphia owned by a well-known Israeli chef and it was heart-breaking to cancel the plans and organize a family online Seder. But we made the best of things, with the knowledge that as suggested by the great Rav Fauci we could have a normal summer. That turned out to not be the case, as the calendar marched forward and holiday after holiday was cancelled.
It has been a long journey through Tractate Pesachim and dangerous detours of spirits and witchcraft, but we find ourselves today back at the Seder table. And what a voyage it has been over the past few months to get here. The holiday begins with the first cup – the promise of a new beginning — and protection from the virus as more and more of us become vaccinated.
The houses of Hillel and Shammai are not in exact agreement over the order of blessings with one first focused on the sanctification of the day, and the other on sanctification of the wine. But let’s all agree that what matters is that we are together in one way or another, whether online, or maybe this year for some, in person. But we are together. And besides, the text suggests that the Hillel perspective will always prevail because of a ruling down from heaven from the “divine voice.”
The Passover Seder this year, which I am speculating for most will be the second one performed via zoom, will carry with it all the bitterness from the past year. Mixed with the dipping of the bitter herbs will be the memories of those we lost, and those who suffered from illness and economic hardship and broken heartedness. We are told that we dip a vegetable such as lettuce that is used as a bitter herb twice so that we set the example for our children of why this night is different from all others.
And if I could dip the bitter herbs once for every life lost during the pandemic, I would. I am an adult and I feel irreparably scared from the last year. I live in the city that was for a time the epicenter of the pandemic and every trip outside my home carried with it a potential for sickness and death. The city that I have loved for over forty years became the most dangerous place on earth, and danger lurked everywhere – in the elevators of my building, the circular front doors, the mailbox, the supermarket cart, and every surface that I came into contact with.
But I worry most about the children. How will they recover from a year spent away from the classroom and the wider world? If my social skills have atrophied during the past year, what about the children who lost the opportunity to further develop theirs? Will they carry the fear of living through this near-death experience with them for the rest of their lives?
I am told by those much wiser than me, that children are resilient and will move on and live their lives, while the older souls like me will need to fight to regain secure footing in the world. But still, I worry about the children and what they have lost over the past year.