Passover in the Time of Coronavirus – National Review

Posted By on April 14, 2020

The Passover Hagada from the Guenzburg collection of ancient Hebrew manuscripts and books is pictured at the Russian State Library in Moscow, Russia November 7, 2017. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

A morbid joke has circulated here in Israel, where the government has imposed a strict lockdown for Passover evening, barring all vehicular traffic and prohibiting pedestrians from straying more than one hundred meters from their homes: Like our ancient forebears, contemporary Israelites hunker down in our homes tonight, hoping the plague will indeed pass over us.

While ordinarily, Jews in Israel and around the world celebrate the Passover Seder with extended families, friends, and even strangers, this year, we will commemorate the exodus from Egypt with nuclear families only, thanks to the coronavirus restrictions in place in almost every Jewish community across the globe. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enjoined us several weeks ago, when it comes to extended families in the age of coronavirus, love is distance.

For our family, and for many others, this year painfully marks the first time in our lives that grandparents, cousins, uncles, aunts, and close friends wont grace our Seder table with their presence. This is doubly painful for those of us, like myself, who live far away from their parents and siblings and eagerly look forward to Passover as a time to reconnect and reinforce intergenerational family bonds.

But even in ordinary times, both Israelis in general and traditionally observant Jews worldwide tend to be highly social people who pray, study, and dine together in large groups. This tendency is thought to have caused higher-than-normal infection rates among Orthodox Jews in Israel and the New York area, likely tied to communal celebrations of the Purim holiday exactly a month ago.

So as restrictions have successively tightened, at first barring prayer gatherings of more than 100 people, then closing synagogues altogether, then proscribing even open-air prayer quorums of ten people in the streets outside their homes, Israelis and Jews abroad have been forced to reckon with a fundamental inversion not only of their material existence, like billions around the world, but also of their spiritual lives.

To be sure, prayer quorums have continued via Zoom, as have Torah and Talmud classes, and even weddings and bar mitzvahs. Weve learned to adapt at least the trappings of our religious lives to the new normal just as weve adjusted our temporal lives. A fascinating debate has even arisen as to whether the traditional injunction against using electricity on the Sabbath and holidays may be relaxed for tonight only to allow isolated, elderly, or other struggling individuals and families to virtually join a Seder.

But technological adaptations aside, Passover has always highlighted the national aspect of Jewish peoplehood, the forging of our nation in the fires of Egypt, where slavery and oppression transformed our ancestors from the Children of Israel to the People of Israel. At our Seder tables, we will retell the story of how national unity and communal faith sparked our liberation from an evil regime.

And yet, Passover has also always been a familial celebration, deeply focused on ritual and inquiry that can be carried out only at the level of individual families.

The Talmud records that millennia ago, Jews throughout the Land of Israel gathered in family units to eat the Paschal lamb on the outskirts of Jerusalem, not in the Temple itself, where all other sacrifices were performed. Contemporary Seders center on children asking and answering questions, singing songs, and discussing the concepts of freedom and enslavement. In the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Passover revolves around the duty of telling our story to our children.

None of these activities, of course, could possibly be carried out at the national or even communal level. Instead, our families, to paraphrase Edmund Burke, constitute little platoons that form the backbone of our larger society; the stronger and more generous they are, the greater our society becomes. And while its become trite to conceive of new ways in which we can use the current crisis to create something good, theres no question that reinvigorating our families will in turn enhance our individual and national lives.

For many in Israel and elsewhere, sitting down to yet another meal with the same four or five or six people weve been cooped up with for weeks doesnt exactly inspire giddiness. But our hope, tonight, is that by casting aside social media and other electronic distractions, by discussing the myriad ways we can improve ourselves and our relationships, by recognizing the role that our heritage plays in how we develop as people, and by wrestling with tough questions, we can pave the way for a renaissance in civil society when all of this nastiness finally passes us over.

The most poignant moment of the Seder arrives early on, when the youngest person at the table recites the Four Questions, which focus on the refrain how is this night different from all the others? This year, for worse, but also for better, it wont be difficult to find an answer.

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Passover in the Time of Coronavirus - National Review

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