Spring has arrived, and as April begins, the first month of the Jewish year, known in the Torah as Aviv, Spring (Exodus 13:4), is already one week in.
But this is a very strange spring, the spring of 2020–5780. As the natural world is budding into new life all around us in bright, vivid colours – green and yellow, blue and pink – an invisible force, the coronavirus that is spreading across the world, is also alive amongst us.
Stranger still, for Jews across the world, in the midst of the month of Aviv – known better by its Babylonian name, Nisan, the festival of Pesach that recalls the liberation of our ancestors from slavery will begin.
How will we celebrate Pesach this year? This is a practical question – given that we may find it hard to source matzah and maror and cannot congregate together around the Seder table – either in the synagogue or at home – because households continue to be in isolation. It’s also a spiritual and emotional question – since it’s hard to feel that there is something to celebrate right now.
As we ask these practical and spiritual/emotional questions, let us remember this central teaching of Pesach, set out in the Torah in the context of the commandment to eat matzah and exclude leaven (Ex. 13: 6-8):
You shall tell [V’higgadta] your child on that day, saying: “It is because of what the Eternal One did for me, when I went out of Egypt.”
This verse is repeated in the Haggadah, in the retelling of the Exodus story first crafted by the early rabbis. Generation after generation, ‘from Egypt until now’ (Numbers 13:19), in all circumstances – in times of segregation and persecution, and in times when Jewish life and creativity flourished – Jews have celebrated Pesach and identified with the story; even when consigned to the gruesome landscape of ‘planet Auschwitz’.*
How? Why? It is appropriate that we ask questions. After all, it’s the four questions of the Haggadah, traditionally recited by the youngest at the seder table, that prompt us to engage in the ritual of the Seder.
We might imagine that the generations before us were able to celebrate Pesach even in terrible and terrifying times because they had more faith than we have. That may be true. But perhaps, the reasons are deeper: those who went before us knew about survival against the odds and they knew that survival in the midst of anguish and suffering depended on maintaining a spirit of hope.
Our ancestors were slaves for more than half of the 430 years that that they sojourned in Egypt (Ex. 12:40). While acknowledging this, the rituals of the festival of Pesach focus on their liberation. Matzah, as the Haggadah tells us, is ‘the bread of affliction’ – and it is also the bread of freedom, recalling that after the final tenth plague, the slaves were so eager to leave Egypt, there was no time for the dough in their kneading bowls to rise (Ex. 12:39).
That last plague, the death of the first born, was more than the final blow against Pharaoh and Egypt. The slaves only escaped that deadly plague because they had the courage to mark out their houses, so that it would pass over them – that’s what ‘Pesach‘ means: ‘Passover’ (Ex. 12: 21-23-).
Today, in April 2020 – Aviv/Nisan 5780, it feels like we are being afflicted by a deadly plague, and must stay in our houses until it passes over. But the Exodus story and the Festival of Pesach remind us that whatever we have to endure, we will be free of it.
And more than this: as with the slaves, we have the opportunity to learn what it means to be free; to be free of the excessive materialism and compulsive consumption that has driven this coronavirus plague across the earth. Let’s not call it a ‘virus’, let’s name it for what it is: a travel bug, proliferating across the globe, because that’s what those living in the most prosperous nations have become accustomed to do; to use our prosperity to travel around the world, consuming as many new, exotic experiences as we can.
The coronavirus crisis will pass and we will emerge out of our homes, bereaved and traumatised – and also full of gratitude for the gift of life and grateful to all those who did what they could to save lives. And more than this: having done everything we could to make life bearable for ourselves and others – to reach out and connect across the ether, to help those more vulnerable than ourselves – we will be determined to live in new ways; to share with others and to care for one another and the world around us.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
*This expression was coined by the Jewish philosopher, Emil L. Fackenheim (“The Holocaust and Philosophy.” The Journal of Philosophy, Volume 82, Issue 10, Eighty-Second Annual Meeting American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division, Oct. 1985, p. 511).