“Why is this night different from all other nights?” I asked but the answer seemed obvious when I looked up at my cellphone holding my sister, her husband, and two of my cousins. Like many members of the tribe, my family and I spent our Seders apart but still together with the aid of technology.
I have often remarked that Passover is one of my favorite holidays in large part because the story always seems new despite never changing. It is only our circumstances that change and thus, so do we. By the time the story circles back around each year, I find a new lesson waiting for me in its repeated words. This became especially true for me in the years working on my Master’s Thesis, “Father and Servant, Son and Slave: Judaism and Labor in Georgia, 1732-1809,” which opens like this blog with the start of the four questions. This year, however, put the story on edge: what a strange and surreal circumstance we all find ourselves in now. Such a transformative time.
Reading the Haggadah this year and hearing the slightest echo of my electronic voice bouncing back to me every so often, I was surprised by the first lines that struck a chord with me– nothing so obvious as the plagues, as I suspected, instead it was a listing of people who still have to retell this story though they might feel exempt– even if we are wise, experienced, and educated “we should still be commanded to tell the story of the outgoing from Egypt.” (pg. 5, my childhood Haggadah, Israel Carmel Wine Passover Haggadah, 1973).
“Even if you know it, you have to tell the story” always made sense to me because of how I feel about this particular story, but this year I heard it differently. I heard, “anyone can be enslaved. Anyone can catch a virus.” I heard the boastful voices from my own past, my own young and naive voice included, talking about how to avoid some historic tragedy–how we who are wise, experienced, and educated would know better or be able to get out of some particular situation. The implication of this thought pattern, that people sucked up into tragedy are somehow not wise, experienced, or educated, results in a horrific justification that dehumanizes the suffering and lets the unaffected cloak themselves in false security and superiority. Anyone can catch a virus. Anyone can be enslaved.
By now, most of us have been impacted by this disease– whether it be your health, your wealth, or your loved ones. If it were not for familial support, I would be going into debt just to eat right now. I invested my savings into my business and now what was shaping up to be my busy season is canceled. I think of Dayenu and I find myself incredibly grateful for what I do have– it will suffice. I am lucky to have my family with me as I try to think of creative new ways to bring in some sort of revenue, a struggle that many others across the nation are also facing. Many of them are also sick or caring for people who are. Then there are the people who do not have the benefit of a familial support system like mine and have to put themselves at risk to go to work serving food or to report on the news. We have found heroes in the hospital workers, putting themselves at risk and self-isolating from family; the mail carriers ensuring that at least some parts of our country stay up and running; and our city workers fighting to get unemployment benefits out. Then, there are the dead and dying, the people who had so much more to give and live for who we are losing every single day.
Passover is essentially the origin story of the “Jewish People.” At the start of the story we are just a large family, maybe 70 souls altogether, but by the end, we are a distinct nation. At Mount Sinai, alongside the laws, tradition states that the Jewish People also received the lunar-seasonal Hebrew Calendar. Thus Passover lands in the first month, Nisan, marking the start of a new nation with a distinct language and method of keeping time. The story of Passover is a story of transformation–from enslavement to freedom, we discovered our identity.
All of our lives have radically changed, and I find myself asking who we will be when we emerge from this. What kind of cultural shift is happening now? How will we transform? Is there a Mount Sinai during this journey to tell us who we have become? Sitting in my house like a caterpillar in a cocoon, I hope we emerge as butterflies– fragile, yes, but tenacious enough to fly thousands of miles on those delicate wings and gathering together in large groups. For now, we meet over blue light screens– getting together for game nights, happy hours, and Seders.
 Incidentally, our “New Year” does not fall between the last and first months on the calendar, instead, coming in the seventh month of Tishrei. Seven is a powerful number of renewal in Judaism, with most of our time cycles such as counting Jubilee Years or the days of the week running on sevens.↩