Zooming On Pesach – A Positive Mitzvah

Why is this year different from all other years? In other years we invite “all who are hungry [and alone]” literally into our homes to join us for Pesach. This year when such invitations are impossible, we invite all who are hungry to come and zoom.

In a few days, individuals, couples, and immediate families (with children at home) will join in celebrating Pesach. At almost the very beginning of the Seder, we will announce in Aramaic (so that everyone will understand), “Let all who are hungry come and eat. All that are in need come and join us to celebrate Pesach.” This year, due to the COVED-19 pandemic, that will be a mostly empty invitation, as all of us are socially isolating ourselves, walling ourselves off, at least physically, from the outside world. I would suggest, however, that we modify the words during the current crisis to, “kol dichfin yeitei v’Zoom — all that are [spiritually] hungry [and all that are lonely] come and Zoom[1].” Within the observant community there has been a great deal of discussion as to the permissibility of “Zoom” services and sedarim. For me, a heter (leniency) is not what is needed, but instead a recognition that this year it is a positive mitzvah to Zoom on Pesach.

Knowledge of the dangers posed by loneliness and social isolation are not new. Well before the Coronavirus enforced social separation, media, medical professions, and government agencies were warning of a “Loneliness Epidemic.” In January of this year (before the advent of the Coronavirus) the US Department of Health estimated that more than 1/3 of Americans suffer from loneliness caused by social isolation.[2]  I can only imagine what this number would look like today, as lockdowns cover much of the United States and indeed the whole world. The website noted that loneliness poses a health threat similar in level to smoking, and that the problem is particularly acute during holidays. It has also been demonstrated that loneliness and social isolation play a greater role in premature mortality than obesity, physical inactivity, and air pollution.[3]  The prominent journal Psychology Today notes, “feelings of isolation can have a serious detrimental effect on one’s mental and physical health. Loneliness can be a risk factor for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis, among other critical diseases. Lonely people are also twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.” [4]

Even in a typical year, loneliness poses a particular challenge during holiday periods. During these times, people of all ages, separated from loved ones, can feel alone and isolated as Religious holidays are most often celebrated in the midst of family and community. Within the Jewish tradition, one-joke expresses this quite well. “We suffered, we were rescued, now we eat!” The holidays intentionally create, primarily through festive meals and communal rituals, a sense of family and connection. It is therefore almost inconceivable to imagine celebrating Passover all alone, without being surrounded by family and friends. At other times I would write of the importance of reaching out to those at risk, suggesting that we invite them (physically) into our homes not only on Passover but on Shabbatot throughout the year. This year, as we all recognize, is far from ordinary. We are all shut into our homes, and we all face a world full of increased uncertainty and even fear. Now is a time when all of us are at risk.

Thirty-six times In the Torah, we are commanded to treat the stranger with respect, and in Leviticus (19:18), we are commanded to “love the stranger as you love yourself.” These commands are directly connected to our experience as strangers in Egypt. As a people we experienced what it was like to be strangers, and we are commanded to learn empathy. We are commanded to ensure that strangers coming to our communities have a very different experience. A stranger, by definition, is a person who is alone, surrounded by a community with which he or she can only with difficulty connect. In a real sense, as we sit in our homes, all of us, especially those who are alone, are effectively “strangers,” lacking many of the communal supports so necessary for human existence. This year as we hear the words “let all who are in need…” it is essential to remember that “need” extends far beyond the financial. This year, when we feel alone as strangers in a very strange world, one primary need that we feel is for connection. At this time, the Pesach Seder can best fulfill this role.

Extraordinary times require extraordinary responses. Our tradition teaches that we must make religious decisions built on the past, but also reflecting the reality of the time in which we live. Sometimes these responses may seem radical, and only in retrospect natural and authentic. In antiquity, Passover (and most other holiday observances) was celebrated primarily in the Temple, based on animal sacrifice. With the Temple’s destruction, the holiday and indeed Judaism could easily have vanished. But instead, moved to home and synagogue by courageous rabbis, our tradition has grown from strength to strength.

Now is just such an extraordinary time. People are alone and frightened. We now face a world where confidence is vanishing along with health, jobs, and economic stability.   Religion was “created” – to provide hope, comfort, and connection — for just such a time. Today, we need the courage to say, “Let all who are hungry and in need [of connection] come and Zoom.” This year we must declare that to Zoom on Pesach is a positive mitzvah.

[1] When Zoom is used in the essay, it should be read as a convenient placeholder for all the different social media platforms that serve a similar function.

[2] https://www.hrsa.gov/enews/past-issues/2019/january-17/loneliness-epidemic

[3] https://academic.oup.com/ppar/article/27/4/127/4782506

[4] https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/basics/loneliness

About the Author
David serves as rabbi of the Jewish Community of Japan and leads the Assembly of Rabbis and Cantors, Australia, New Zealand and Asia. He also works closely with the emerging Jewish community in Indonesia. He has a strong commitment to interfaith relations, exemplified by, "Beyond the Golden Rule: A Jewish Approach to Dialogue and Discourse." His interest in human diversity has also shaped his passion as a successful photographer
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