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Passover and the Pandemic

Rabbi Fredric S. Pomerantz - Congregation Agudas Achim, Livingston Manor
Posted 3/25/21

During the past year, our country, and indeed, the entire world, has been, as if, under attack.

During the past year fear has enslaved us, as emergency rooms were overwhelmed, death rolls passed …

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Passover and the Pandemic

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During the past year, our country, and indeed, the entire world, has been, as if, under attack.

During the past year fear has enslaved us, as emergency rooms were overwhelmed, death rolls passed the casualty tolls in all the American wars, people were dying so quickly that corpses had to be stored in refrigerator trucks, we were cut off from friends and family, as some sheltered in place, and others were quarantined.

During the past year, Covid-19 enslaved us and the death tolls and threats to loved ones afflicted us as surely as the whips of the Egyptian taskmasters afflicted the Israelite slaves as reported in the Book of Exodus in Scripture.

Passover, as reported in the Bible, and as celebrated this week by the Jewish People here in Sullivan County, and by Jews throughout the world, marks the liberation of the Israelites from an unbearable bondage and slavery of great affliction.

Passover is the freedom festival of history. It was a magnificent liberation from the danger, and fear, and pain of Egypt. (in Hebrew, the word for Egypt also means, narrow, dangerous, frightening place.)

When the slaves crossed the receding waters they were redeemed by God's powerful Presence.

This Passover, we will not only mark that ancient Redemption, with thanksgiving and praise, but we will also mark in gratitude and blessing the redemption that is beginning with more and more of our citizens receiving vaccinations of the various vaccines available, along with more and more of our citizens wearing masks and observing social distancing, not only to protect themselves, but to safeguard the health of others we encounter.

As with other Jewish festivals, Passover both marks an historic event (in this case the Exodus from Egypt) and simultaneously celebrates a change in our natural world.

Therefore, Passover is also a Spring Festival.

Passover reminds us of the renewal and change of circumstance that Spring can bring. And so, as we begin to turn the corner with this Pandemic, we can begin to imagine a time when Covid-19 will no longer keep us apart, nor keep us in danger. It feels as if we are about to pass over a dangerous place.

Though there are synagogue services, Passover is essentially celebrated in each Jewish home, with a tabletop dinner ritual called a seder (which means “order” of the ritual.) where historic elements of nature are used to reteach the lessons of Passover. Each home becomes a small sanctuary, and the dinner table is, as if, an altar as the head of the household leads the telling (HaGaddah) of the Passover story.

This year, as Covid-19 is still swirling, many family members will be prohibited from gathering for the joint seder, yet many people will join virtually in a zoom ceremony.

On an ornamental plate in the center of the table are traditional foods used since Biblical times to teach the lessons of the Holiday.

Greens promise Spring rebirth and hope. A bitter herb (often horseradish) is reminiscent of the bitterness of (any) slavery. Ground apples and walnuts and wine (some add cinnamon) look like the mortar used by the slaves in the brick store cities) a baked egg, and a baked shank bone is a reminder of the pascal lamb sacrifice, eaten to also mark the renewal of Spring. A small bowl of saltwater is reminiscent of the tears of the slaves.

Each Jew is to consider themselves as though each was redeemed in the historical Exodus, and we would say, today, redeemed from the plague of this year's pandemic. Wine is used to celebrate the four ways that God freed the Israelites, as is the matzoh, unleavened bread) which becomes the bread of affliction, eaten to remember the difficulties, and to give thanks for our being saved then and now. (our Christian friends use this unleavened bread for communion wafers, along with a repetition of the wine)

In this Pandemic we are passing through, Passover can give us a perspective of moving through this dangerous painful place of the worldwide plague into a promise of liberation, redemption, and salvation.

As Jews taste the bitter herb to remember fearsome times, they also taste the Spring greens, a symbol of light over darkness. Of better times.

The Passover Seder contains the Biblical stories of old, singing, a festive meal shared together, and ends with abiding hope for the future. Its central image is Jerusalem, just as our Christian neighbors are focused on Jerusalem at this time of Holiday.

It's a prayer for all.

May the fear and pain of the past year be lifted. May we pass over these difficult times.

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