The significance of celebrating Passover during this pandemic

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

I usually love Passover because, despite all of its moving parts and fastidiousness about deep cleaning and minding what we eat, it is a time that I like to call “ego detox”. Consider the difference between matzah and bread. Aside from the leavening agent which fills it with pockets of air, the recipe for both is pretty much the same. However, on Passover, we only eat matzah and are very strict about eliminating bread or things that rise (chametz) or can be confused for flour. In fact, one of the Four Questions that we train the youngest among us to ask is “Why is it that on every other night we eat chametz AND matzah but tonight we only eat matzah? My answer to this question is simple: That leavening agent is the equivalent to the ego. It’s what we use to puff ourselves up and make ourselves look bigger than we are so that others will “respect” us more — but it lacks authenticity. Matza, on the other hand, which lacks a leavening agent, is referred to as “lechem oni” or poor man’s bread. I would argue that it is not poor in a negative sense but rather in one that, like most Jewish practices and rituals, is meant to help us reconnect with our true selves and to recognise, with humility, the outside help we all need by design. It’s time to change up the way we do things and re-evaluate how we lead our lives. And boy, does this Passover come at a time where we are being forced to change up how we do virtually everything! My hope is that we can seize this unique moment in history. Rather than focus on what has been forbidden to us during this time, we can reconnect with our true selves, shed some of the unhealthy ego-driven behaviour we have come to see as desirable, or even just normal. The story of Passover recounts how the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt which in Hebrew is called Mitzrayim. The etymology of Mitzrayim refers to a narrow place and our opportunity in reliving the exodus is to free ourselves from our own personal Mitzrayim. Given that the Israelites relocated to Egypt to reunite with Joseph, who had been sold into slavery by his brothers only to rise from the rank of servant to that of viceroy, it follows that Mitzrayim symbolises the self-imposed limitations we have each placed upon ourselves for the sake of our egos and even in pursuit of what we believe to be our best interests. Thus, the opportunity is to identify things we can work towards freeing ourselves from, with the help of Hashem and of our support systems.

Ready? Let’s get started!

First, a little background! Like most Jewish holidays, Passover has many names. The Festival of Matzot, the Time of our Freedom, and the Festival of Spring. The connection to spring is so important that the whole Jewish calendar revolves around ensuring that Passover coincides with spring. It’s so important that our leap years aren’t just a day longer but a whole month longer, to ensure that Passover occurs in the spring. We add a second month of Adar, which is associated with the story of Purim, where we were saved from extermination by steadfastness to our faith and also through our solidarity with each other and the poor. Interestingly, many of the lockdown and physical distancing orders in Europe and the lands it colonised started right around Purim, as did the outbreak in Iran, where the story of Purim is set. Adar is also a month associated with joy. Indeed, the saying which is most commonly associated with Adar is “when the month of Adar begins, one increases rejoicing.” — but how can we possibly even think of joy at a time like this?

I cannot presume to explain the tragedy that is this pandemic, but I will at least try to explain the opportunity Passover offers us as a way to move forward, at a time where it feels like everything is either stalled or falling apart. You see, this Passover offers a HUGE opportunity to make our lives and our world a much better, happier and more joyful place!

“How?” you ask.

Well, Adar is when we start to increase in our joy, and the month that follows Adar is called Nisan. The first of Nisan is considered to be the date of the creation of the Universe. As such, it is one of the many new years in the Jewish calendar. In fact, Nisan is an Assyrian word and Assyrians today call Nisan the month of… wait for it… HAPPINESS. Like spring, the month it is bound to, Nisan and Passover, which occurs on the 14 of Nisan, are about the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. Passover is about renewal. The seeds of joy that were planted in Adar, where joy begins to increase, start to sprout in Nisan. It’s actually a month where, unlike the communal fast that precedes Purim in Adar, fasts, eulogies and other signs of communal mourning or grief are discouraged.

What does that have to do with the pandemic and the lockdowns implemented to flatten the curve, though?

Let’s look at the story of Passover. Before the Exodus, there were ten plagues in Egypt. Torah scholars say that they occurred at the rate of roughly one a month until the Adar preceding the Exodus. At this point, the locusts devour everything in sight, followed quickly by three days of total darkness and eventually the plague of the first-born, the last straw. This led Pharaoh to agree to let the enslaved Israelites go (until he changed his mind but that didn’t end terribly well.) You could say that coronavirus is sneaky and small and very contagious and that it has mowed down many people like the locusts devoured blades of grass or fields of wheat. The response for many places in the world was to order shutdowns or lockdowns which lead to people swarming stores and stockpiling unnecessary things (like toilet paper). One could argue that this wave of restrictions and of fear was like total darkness since we did and still do not have a total understanding of how this virus operates. This left us flying blind in response to the pandemic. As a result, we are seeing a lot of frightening numbers when it comes to hospitalisations and deaths and, not less importantly, reductions in people’s incomes and “net worths”.

Sadly, the resistance to implementing stricter limitations seems to be coming from politicians who took advantage of the knowledge they were given to protect their investments whilst doing nothing to protect their constituents. Note also the billionaires who, rather than spending their own money to ensure safe working conditions, are passing that cost on to their customers, many of whom have seen a decrease in income. The richest one among them even went as far as launching an appeal for funds, expecting to be lauded and then firing an employee for organising a strike due to unsafe working conditions. You know who I mean, right?

This same obsession with power, which they derive from their positions of privilege, continues to limit the actions they will take to protect the many, poorer people whose best interests they are meant to be representing and looking out for. Some politicians even went as far as suggesting that the elderly among us, who are the most at risk, would be willing to die to protect “the economy”. Though when our modern-day Pharaohs say “economy”, what they’re really saying is “the reason we give for helping ourselves to public funds, whilst withholding essential services like healthcare and other basic human needs from our constituents and employees.” You know, the people, citizens or otherwise, who have done, are doing and will do the heavy lifting that keeps rich people rich — many at great cost to their own well-being. The main reason the numbers of people affected by this pandemic are so high in the US is that an overly large number of people do not have access to the things that having a pulse should automatically give you because, if for no other reason, keeping all people healthy is how you reduce the impact of this pandemic and any other communicable disease. Preventive healthcare reduces costs and protects productivity. But I suppose that gets in the way of the profits of insurance companies, private “healthcare” providers and Big Pharma. The message is fairly clear: “Who cares if one slave (employee) dies? You just get another one because their lives depend on your willingness to let them live, and paying for healthcare is bad for my bottom line”. This ignores the fact that most already available social programs exist mainly to offset corporate costs and let’s not even talk about military service or the cost of education. You could argue that, like Pharaoh, they knew what was coming and they chose to continue to put their desire for power over the well-being of their people. In fact, I am arguing that.

And this is where it gets interesting! This is where the opportunities present themselves!

One of the most important things we say during the Seder is “In each and every generation, a person is required to see themselves as though they were leaving Egypt.” We’re also required to teach our children the story. The Seder, which means “order” in Hebrew, is meant to be about immersing ourselves in the story of our enslavement at the hands of the Pharaohs, who had forgotten about all the good Joseph had done and of our exodus from that narrow place. Indeed, although he was the Viceroy, he was still not recognised as Egyptian enough to save the Israelites from the fate of centuries of enslavement. Nor would have our assimilation have been a good outcome for them or for us.

We are tasked with the retelling of the story, and we eat many things that are intended to symbolise our hard labour, our tears and our grief, but the Seder then continues with a festive meal and ends in songs of praise. Indeed, for most of the meal we recline when we eat and drink, to indicate our freedom and, some might say, though I disagree, our ascent to the regal level of those who once oppressed us. We do not, however, recline when we eat the bitter herbs that are a part of the Seder. Nor should we gloss over the hardships we have encountered as we try to fit into a society and economic model that is at odds with Jewish values, and tells us that having our basic human needs met is a privilege instead of a right. You are either born into that privilege or are told to pull yourself up by your bootstraps as if your labour will somehow set you free and allow you to join the ranks of your oppressors. (SPOILER ALERT: It won’t). Nor can we ignore the hardships the most vulnerable among us face as a result of this pandemic and the lack of action of those who are in power. However…

Here it comes…

Now is the time when, in being forced to do things differently, both because of Passover and because of this pandemic, we can re-evaluate our priorities and goals, and work to free ourselves of the “norms” we have accepted as “normal” but simply are not. It is not normal to treat people only as a function of their bank accounts and of ranks created by those who wanted to enshrine their supremacy over others.

We can build better lives for ourselves, use our time more wisely, be more conscious of what we put in in our mouths and what comes out of it and learn to help each other and accept help when we need it. We are the many, whilst the Pharaohs of this world are the few and now, during Passover, is the time to free ourselves from under the yoke of their egos and our own. The upside of having to stay home is that we’ve stopped needlessly running around so much, stopped polluting the world as much, stemmed overconsumption as much as we did, stopped wasting hours commuting to an office just because our skills aren’t needed closer to home and telework was not allowed by your employer or in endless but pointless meetings, to name just a few examples. Many are even blessed to be able to spend more time with the people they love, in person or online. (Shout out to all the parents juggling work and homeschooling though!) Like Passover’s ego detox, this quarantine is an opportunity to realise what is and isn’t working, and reprioritise how we spend our time since our Pharaohs have less say in whether you’re spending enough time at work — at least for those of us who are fortunate enough to have sources of income that make it possible to stay home. Also, it behooves those of us with this privilege to build better support systems for all of us, and to demand better living and working conditions for ourselves and for the people making it possible for us to stay healthy, fed and connected to the outside world throughout this period. That and more accountability from those who have made themselves Pharaohs on the backs of our hard work and act as if their behaviour is normal. Do so in the spirit of the first paragraph of the story we recite during the Seder: “All those who are hungry, let them enter and eat. All who are in need, let them come celebrate the Passover!”

May this ‘Passover: Pandemic Edition’ be one of true liberation and may we all merit a new beginning, free from the Pharaohs of the world and of our minds (Did you know that numerical values of ‘pharaoh’ and of ‘thought’ are both 355 in Hebrew ? ‘Who’s in charge’, ‘different world’, ’alternate end’, 'fixation' and 'petty cash' also add up to 355. Food for thought.) and the happiest we can be! It is within our power to take advantage of opportunities, however small or seemingly insignificant, to make the world a better place and we should not let anyone or their ego tell us any different! We are many, the Pharaohs are few. What we do, each of us, matters. The time is now to leave Egypt. Happy Exodus!

Wishing you a happy, healthy, liberated, powerful and ego-free Passover! Let me know how you are leaving your own personal Mitzrayim!

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