Working Miracles: Passover 2020
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
In less than one week’s time we will be celebrating Passover.
The irony is inescapable, and if you’ve spent any time on the social media recently, you’ve seen the jokes about how Jews will celebrate this year, in the midst of a dreadful plague, as a reminder of how we escaped the ten plagues that were inflicted on Egypt. Or the one about guests being invited into your house by appointment, one at a time, to do a specific reading of the Haggadah and leave. Or the table set beautifully, with the Seder Plate in the center, only instead of guests we have laptops…
Yet this isn’t the first time that we’ve had to deal with extraordinary times and their implication for our holidays. In fact, the Torah (Numbers 9:1-14) specifically permits us to celebrate Passover a month late due to unforeseen circumstances such as illness or extended business travel.
Without a doubt, this will be a sadder Passover for many of us. The Seder is always an opportunity for families to come together for delicious meals and traditions that go back generations. Passover is a time to recall family stories and histories, to contemplate how fortunate we are today, a time to welcome not only the spirit of Elijah, but also the memories of loved ones at whose tables we once gathered as children or grandchildren.
But with the Corona virus still raging around the world, this year we are forced to break this tradition, whether by common sense or state law.
This year we can add a fifth question to the famous four, the Mah Nishtana. Why is this Seder so different from all other Seders? Why are there so many empty chairs around our table this year? I am sure that as we sing this part of the Seder, all our voices will tremble in acknowledgment of this year’s gloomy reality.
Technology might help us connect virtually with our loved ones, but it just isn’t the same as being there in person.
So what answer do we give our children this year, when they ask the Four Questions? Perhaps, from deep wells of collective memory, recollections will arise of even darker times. But will that be dayenu—enough—for today’s children, who have never known want or deprivation?
Yet what better opportunity than this, to understand better the teaching of the Haggadah? We are told that in each generation, we should all see ourselves as though we ourselves had been redeemed from Egypt. How, this year, can we fail to feel the dread, the fear and anxiety that our ancestors must have felt? Our children will remember this night, of this I have no doubt. But they also need to remember the vital lessons of Passover: compassion for the disenfranchised, the alienated and excluded; empathy for those who are confined by sickness and hopelessness; gratitude for the sacrifices made by doctors, nurses and caretakers; and most importantly, the real meaning of freedom.
Freedom is not chaos. Freedom is the ability to make choices. Every day we make dozens of choices. Some are silly and even frivolous—what clothes to wear, what to eat for lunch (and how lucky that THESE are our choices…). But there are also some choices that require more thought and reflection. Some even that might make a huge difference in our life: To stay at an unsatisfying job; to leave a broken or abusive home; to give a relationship a try, even if it means overcoming our fear of rejection.
Only weeks after their redemption, the Israelites learn an important lesson: God didn’t release them from bondage to carouse in luxury. Along with freedom comes a heavy responsibility. In Exodus 19:6, God tells them, “You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Judaism defines holiness as the requirement to help the needy, to free the slaves, to feed the hungry and heal the sick. To me, this is the entire purpose of our existence as a People.
In this light, the Exodus from Egypt is nothing but a huge lesson.
For millennia, people looked to the miracle of the Exodus as a symbol of God’s power to intervene in history. Sadly, Jewish history has put this vision to the test many times.
And God’s answer to all our questions?
I empowered you to do it yourselves! I showed you how to do it! I gave you a road map; I endowed you with imagination and the ability to reason and create. What else do you want?
This is what we should tell our children this year when they ask Mah Nishtana, why is this Seder so different from all other Seders.
I would tell them that the story of Passover is like the boxtop of a huge jigsaw puzzle. On all other years we get to look at the picture of the way things happened back then. Now we learn how they must be from here on. Then it was God. Today it’s up to each of us to put the pieces together.
We free ourselves when we free others. We free ourselves when we rid the world of bigotry, ignorance and oppression. We don’t have to wait for miracles: We are the miracle workers!
We won’t forget this year’s Pesach. Not for as long as we and our children live. But we must also never forget its lessons. And next year, with God’s help, may we all celebrate a new age, a world and time rid of sickness, fear and anxiety.
© 2020 by Boaz D. Heilman