As we approach Erev Pesach on 14 Nisan, we seemingly find ourselves in a situation that is frightening, isolative, and odd. We either read the news, or experience directly (or both), the horrors of a plague that have shaken the world. Some might find it strange to be talking about freedom from enslavement in Egypt during a time when many of us feel trapped– but this is not a time to despair– but a time to be aware, to be smart, to hope, and to take time to look back. Yes, this Passover seder will feel different than most. While we are told to distance, we are used to sharing the beautiful experience of a seder with loved ones, friends, and even strangers. While we talk of the 10 plagues during our respective, and perhaps small, Pesach seders, we will be in the midst of a current plague. What is so frightening about this plague we are currently experiencing? It is said to be…many things, and not other things. It is one thing one day, and another the next. The fact is that we do not know very much about this plague yet. The unknown is as scary as darkness, locusts, boils, or many of the other afflictions described in the Torah. Perhaps we can find some comfort in the age-old Jewish response to the unknown: resilience and courage.
While being a bit isolated at home, it has become difficult not to think about solitude. If we look back to the story of Pesach in the Book of Exodus, or Shemot, we can find an interesting bit of text:
“…and none of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning. For the Lord will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when he seeth the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side-posts, the Lord will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you” (Exodus 12:22-23).
According to Rashi’s commentary, G-d said to the people of Israel, “I will direct my eye to see whether you are occupied in obeying my precepts, and then I will spare you.”
Directly in the Torah, G-d tells the Israelites to stay in their houses. If they do not follow some very specific instructions, they will become victims of a sudden and mysterious demise. Just ponder the phrase, “And none of you shall go out of his house until the morning.” Are we, as moderns, not currently experiencing an extended version of this night? We are wise to remain in our homes, lest we be afflicted with the terror of the modern plague. We hunker down so that we might avoid “the destroyer” setting foot into our own homes and infecting us with disease. We are told to obey the command to socially distance so that the angel of death or the destroyer will pass over our own homes, and spare those whom we love and care so deeply for.
Most of us know how the rest of the story of Pesach plays out, and many of us will literally play it out with Haggadah in hand during our soon-to-come Pesach seders. The people of Israel follow the commands of G-d, and are eventually led by Moses into the wilderness, and finally (after many years) across the Jordan, and into the promised land. How do we, as Jews, deal with the night before, and how do we look for the light in darkness? Fortunately, we are experts as a people. Remember when Abram (later Abraham) left his land, and faced the unknown? How about the more recent pitch black night of the Holocaust. Pesach Seders were held in secret, and Shabbat candles were lit discreetly, under threat of death, during what was perhaps the longest night in Jewish history. Eventually, Abram became the father of a great nation, and the Jews survived the Shoah in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. We are accustomed to night, and we have always been awake to see the light of morning–even when the darkness was so overwhelming that it felt thick and infinite.
What can we do right now? It can feel easy to talk about the nights of the past–but experiencing a night is vastly different than reading about those gone by with the light of midday sun illuminating our reflection. As the people of Israel were given instructions as to how to remain safe when the angel of destruction was passing through, we have been given instructions in a different way, and through different channels. We have been instructed to stay home (sound familiar?), to wash our hands, to only go out for essentials, and to maintain a safe distance if we encounter others. While these instructions are not necessarily those of G-d, they can still provide us with safety during our current arduous night. I have recently spoken of Rabbi Ishmael, who believed that Heaven had given physicians the power and permission to heal. According to the Mishneh Torah by Maimonides, health care is the most important communal service that can be offered to a community (Hilchot De’ot 4:23). If this is true, can we not look to Dr. Anthony Fauci and other experts during this time of crisis for practical guidance? We can listen, but the unknown is undoubtedly still present and scary.
It will however, end. According to Rabbi Akiva, G-d brought the people of Israel out of Egypt during the month of Nisan because the weather was right. It was not too hot or too cold. G-d intended for the people to have proper conditions for their upcoming journey. While a Divine plan might not always be clear, clarity does seem to eventually illuminate the darkness.
When the night ended in Egypt, G-d told the people Israel not to forget about what had occurred. “And this day shall be unto you for a memorial, and ye shall keep it a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance forever” (Exodus 12:14). When this long and uneasy night inevitably ends, we can look to the past in order to face the future. We can remember never to let the lessons we have learned, and will continue to learn, vanish in the sun. When our children and grandchildren ask us about this night, we will tell them how we were frightened, how we felt alone, and then how we stepped out of the darkness with our trademark resilience and courage intact. We can tell them how we listened to instructions, and how we did all we could to keep one another safe. We can tell them of the Heavenly work of healthcare and other amazing workers who helped to sustain us all the way through. And with even a bit of faith in G-d, we can tell anyone who asks that G-d brought us out as He did from Egypt, when the time and “weather” was just right to begin our newest journey.
Chag Pesach Sameach.