A Reflection by the Rev. Paul Oakley
This Wednesday evening Passover begins, the holiday when Jews around the world celebrate the ancient deliverance of their ancestors from Egypt, the narrow place, from slavery to freedom. The first two nights of Passover are the occasion of Seders, the ritual feasts of freedom held in people’s homes and sometimes in their synagogues. But no sooner had we entered the preparation period for this most celebrated of Jewish holidays than the air was filled with an ironic question: “How is this Passover different from all other Passovers?”
Pretty much every year we can count on people using their creativity to make commentary on what is happening in the world by parodying the Passover Haggadah, the playbook for the ritual that is the Seder. Since President Trump was inaugurated, there have been annual installments of a satiric “Kushner Family Haggadah,” which uses the symbols of Passover to critique the current presidency. This time around the sun, the parody that stands out is called “The Coronagadah: A Passover Haggadah for this New Age of Plague.” Its author is unknown, and it begins like this:
The centerpiece of the Passover table is the Seder plate, which holds a shankbone, parsley, lettuce, horseradish, a roasted egg, and charoset, a mixture of apples, walnuts, and wine. But Instacart can’t find any of that. So moving on…
Look, nobody likes Manischewitz, but it’s all we got, okay? Bottoms up.
Near the beginning of the Seder, we perform a ritual washing of the hands. Seriously, go wash your hands. No, don’t just splash them – use soap, you maniac. Scrub. Scrub! Now sit six feet over there.
It goes on like that, reflecting the ways life as normal just ain’t a happenin’ this year. Even when it comes to our most-cherished traditions. And so people have adapted, figuring out how what is most important in the Seder can take place at a distance, using conferencing software like Zoom, for people to be present around the table they can’t sit at with those they love. Of course, there’s no virtual replacement for Bubbie’s brisket or kosher-for-Passover lokshen kugel.
Other people will be alone in their room without even that contact this year. This year I will not be sharing with anyone my Sephardic Orange-Almond cake, made with almond flour. It is a favorite that I often contribute to a Seder table. I will be neither host nor guest this year.
But as important as all the symbols are, as commanded as the various rituals are for those who observe the tradition, the key to Passover is a little detail included in the standard Haggadah: each person is supposed to experience the story of oppression and deliverance as their own story, not as a historic or imagined, creative narrative of ancient times. The whole point of the Passover traditions is to experience narratively what is distant and even unimaginable for many, many modern people.
We can hear echoes of this story in the spiritual singing of enslaved African Americans: “Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land. Tell ol’ Pharaoh, Let my people go!” We can experience it again in all the movements for greater freedom, for greater equity that have sought to move the moral arc of America and the world toward greater justice.
If you have experienced privilege of inherited identity, this can be hard to imagine this as your very own story, to place yourselves within it. It is also not so hard to imagine for all who continue to live under oppression and inequity or whose family stories of oppression are not that distant. And people who have grown the seeds of empathy in their hearts can imagine as their own the story what their own families have not experienced. It is a human story that aims to speak across divisions of identity and experience. Open yourselves to it.
This Passover that is different from all other Passovers may be a very well-suited medium. We self-quarantine in varying degrees of trust in the growing scientific knowledge of this virus and in epidemiology generally, with determination, concern, worry, or fear, behind our doors and practices we trust or at least hope will protect us and those we love. We feel, temporarily, not so distant from that ancient story. In that story the pivotal moment comes as the enslaved people are warned what to do by their leaders with access to better knowledge than others have. How can they escape the last and most devastating plague, the plague that will affect even Pharaoh’s household? Mark their doors with a symbol of protection and stay inside, doors and windows closed. Self-Quarantine.
From Chicago, progressive, non-denominational Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann observes that, while the ancient self-quarantine was for protection of one’s own family, “now the charge is, ‘Stay in your house to keep other people’s families safe.’ Yes, this is about your family, but it’s also about public health.”
From Los Angeles, Modern Orthodox Rabbi Elazar Muskin reminds us that : “The first law of Passover is not a ritual law. It’s caring for those in need. If there is any lesson during this time, it’s worrying about the ‘we’, not the ‘I.’ That’s why the hoarding is so amoral, selfish, so inappropriate.”
Harvard theologian Harvey Cox writes about Elijah being the perennial no-show at the Passover Seder, and that’s the lesson. The lesson isn’t that Elijah is going to come; the lesson is that you’re going to open the door, there’s no Elijah, now what are you going to do? What are you going to do to bring the world even a little bit closer to the justice and equity we hope for?
These are lessons of Passover that can sustain and encourage all of us in the times we live in now. And always. Imagine the ancient story as your own, and live accordingly.
Amen and Blessed Be.