By Michael Rothbaum
Sudden disruption. Empty streets. Vacant buildings. Wholesale changes in our way of life. Yes, it sounds like our current reality, the shock of the COVID-19 crisis. But for Jews, there’s a feeling of familiarity to this moment.
We’re approaching Passover, a celebration of the Israelites’ emergence from oppression and genocide in Pharaoh’s Egypt. When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, Passover was a pilgrimage. Jews came from all over the world to the holy city, commemorating the festival of liberation with sacrifices offered by our priests on the sacred altar. But the altar is gone, destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, along with the rest of the Temple.
It wasn’t the first time. The Babylonians destroyed the original temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE. The destruction is commemorated in the book of Eicha, known to English readers as Lamentations. It recounts the desolation of Jerusalem in terms that are painfully resonant. “Zion’s roads are in mourning,” bemoans the author. “Empty of festival pilgrims, all her gates are deserted.”
But after that catastrophe, like so many others in our history, the Jews regrouped. We reinvented Passover, focusing it on a home ritual we now call a Seder. The basic outline of today’s Seder can be found in the Roman-era rabbinic text called the Mishnah. A lot of what we know is there: matzah, bitter herbs, four cups of wine, four questions, the afikomen. It’s remarkable how much of how we celebrate Passover stems from that text, crafted in the shadow of the catastrophe of the Temple’s destruction.
In a time of modern crisis, it tells us a lot about who we are as Jews. For two millennia, Jews have recreated our entire tradition to be portable in an inhospitable world of exile.
This year, Passover will feel very different than it has in the past. But, in a sense, Jews are born for moments like this. We have survived catastrophe in the past. And not just survived–ultimately, we thrived.
I believe that the flourishing of the Jewish observance of Passover, in spite of formidable odds, has lessons to teach a COVID-ravaged planet:
*Trust your community, and not Pharaoh. The Passover story is an agonizing one–not just for Israelites, but for all of Egyptian society. That Pharaoh could treat the Israelites as exploitable and then expendable reflects a regime with grotesque priorities. Other rulers have followed in his footsteps, from Roman emperors who insisted on being worshiped as gods to an American president who speaks more passionately of poll numbers and TV ratings than survival rates. That Jewish civilization could outlast Egypt and Rome reflects a community that internally reinforced values of human dignity, learning, and social justice. When what we hear from the top violates those values, we are inspired to turn to our spiritual communities, and learn and teach our most cherished principles.
*Let the crisis teach you what really matters. The story of Passover is the story of an exploited class of immigrant workers, laborers slandered by Pharaoh as dangerous interlopers. As a result, two spiritual obligations emerge as the ones repeated most often in Torah: give all workers a sabbath, and love and respect the immigrant. As Passover approaches, we are learning that workers we routinely undervalue and treat as expendable, like delivery drivers, pharmacy clerks, and grocery store employees, are actually essential. Like all people created in the image of the divine, they deserve fair wages and basic dignity. Similarly, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem refocused Jewish life on study, prayer, and righteous action. This too is a time to recommit ourselves to the wisdom and loving acts essential for sustaining our communities.
*The pain of destruction can lead to rebirth. Slavery in Egypt lasted for centuries. Roman rule in Jerusalem was cataclysmic. And yet Jewish civilization emerged both times revitalized and invigorated. In the midst of the Roman siege of Jerusalem, a classic rabbinic legend teaches that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai instructed his disciples to smuggle him out of the besieged city walls in a coffin. Safely outside, Yochanan fled to the town of Yavneh, where he founded the first rabbinic academy. Judaism as we know it was literally born in a coffin. We too find ourselves in a time of profound grief and anguish. Even for those not suffering the physical effects of the virus, the disruption of daily life is leaving many of us anxious and disoriented. At the same time, it serves as an invitation to explore new methods of connection, new models of orienting work and family and community.
There’s a dramatic moment in the Passover seder, in which we open the door and declare, “let all who are hungry come and eat!” But this year, Jews will not be able to invite each other to our Passover tables. No matter. We’ll make Passover over Skype and Zoom, exiled from each other physically, but secure in the knowledge that the laws of Spirit transcend physical distance.
Whatever your religion, I pray that the Jewish model inspires you. Yes, the old ways of doing things are on hold, perhaps for longer than we realize. But this moment of rupture may be an opening to new paths. New connections. New ways of being. And, if we are diligent and blessed, maybe even liberation.
Rabbi Michael Rothbaum is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Elohim in Acton, Mass. He serves on the advisory boards of the Jewish Alliance of Law and Social Action (JALSA) and the New England Jewish Labor Committee, and is a member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. He lives in Acton with his husband, Yiddish singer Anthony Russell.
Reprinted from Sojourners, April 1, 2020