Pesach Torah in the Time of Corona

Were we able to gather, we would have heard this morning in synagogue about the instructions for observing Passover and about the events we commemorate when we do. The Passover Torah reading for the first day includes Exodus 12:22, which recounts how Moses spread the word to the Israelites in advance of the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn in every Egyptian household. Moses tells the Israelites that after they have marked their doorposts so the Angel of Death will not include them in that horrible plague, they are to stay inside and not come out until morning. In the middle of the night, Gd struck the first born of every Egyptian family, from the palace of Pharaoh to the deepest dungeon. 

וַתְּהִ֛י צְעָקָ֥ה גְדֹלָ֖ה בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם כִּֽי־אֵ֣ין בַּ֔יִת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵֽין־שָׁ֖ם מֵֽת

By morning, “there arose a great cry, for there was no house where there was not someone dead.” The wail that rose up was a sound whose pain and power we can only imagine.

Yet here we are in 2020, staying in our houses except for the most essential of purposes, with a creeping dread that by the end of this plague, there will be no house unaffected. We, most of us, do not expect to escape this without someone we know dying. Some of us tragically have already crossed that aching threshold. The wail of the Egyptians is a sound that will unfold over time with us too. Flattening the curve only prolongs the wail.

These days are hard. Like the ancient Israelites, we are walled in and waiting for the danger to pass, hoping and praying that we will have posted enough of a sign on our doorposts to be spared.

Yet even in these hard days, we strive, when we can, to look for good. Maybe we are able to spend more unhurried time with loved ones than usual, or maybe we are able to take more walks or sit on the porch in lovely weather. We may feel a sense of solidarity with our neighbors that in times past would have eluded us. We may be reconnecting with old friends because we now all have so much time. We may feel a deepened sense of purpose through serving others in what ways we can. It’s no paradise but some of the moments are OK. For me, the overriding feeling is often one of in-between-ness. 

Screen Shot 2020-04-09 at 4.12.23 PMParting of the Sea of Reeds. Image credit: amboo who?

Just as the Torah reading today tells of a moment of suspense and dread, so too today’s Haftarah tells of a time of transition. As Joshua assumes the mantle of leadership following the death of Moses, Gd calls him to prepare the new generation of Israelites by having them circumcised. There was no circumcision during the years of wandering, and an entire generation needed to be re-introduced to this aspect of the covenant. 

וַיֵּשְׁב֥וּ תַחְתָּ֛ם בַּֽמַּחֲנֶ֖ה עַ֥ד חֲיוֹתָֽם

And [afterward,] they remained where they were, in the camp, until they recovered. (Joshua 5:8) 

As I contemplate these readings, I wonder about the ways in which we too are recovering from the feeling of having something essential taken away from us. School and work are on hold, and with them our livelihoods and the shape of our days. Worship is utterly changed, social lives are in upheaval. Our towns are like ghost towns. The isolation can be profound and unsettling. 

Yet as much as we miss our freedom of movement and — for many of us — a sense of basic safety and predictability regarding our health, there is also a spaciousness about this period. Remaining where we are, we recover from rushing about to meet too many competing obligations, recover from gliding past people and things that deserve our time and attention.

Open doorimage from torange_biz free photobankAnd then on seder night, the moment comes when we leave our close rooms and open the door wide for Eliyahu haNavi (Elijah the Prophet) to come in. Practicing the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests), we step out onto our porches and usher in the one who is designated to tell us when it’s time for Moshiach to arrive. Eliyahu is said to attend every bris, and is evoked every week as Shabbat ends. He embodies the very notion of hope for better things to come. He doesn’t say when the change will come or what’s required of us, not in language that we can understand, but opening our door to Elijah is an act of optimism, of looking forward to something better. And then we start counting our way toward the revelation of Torah, toward Shavuot.

So tonight, whether you do a full seder or a creative riff on a seder or even just have the merest breath of a seder consisting of last night’s leftovers and a half-formed thought of the exodus, I encourage you to mindfully take on at least that part of welcoming Elijah. Get up from your table and open the door, to remind yourself that our people has endured many challenges and threats, and we will endure this one as well. There is always room at our table for hope.

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