Rabbi Michael Barclay
Passover in the Time of COVID-19
Updated: Dec 22, 2021
On Wednesday night, Jews (and many non-Jews) will begin the celebration of Passover with the ritual meal known as a Seder, meaning “order,” as there is a ritualized order of special foods to eat at the meal. This is the ultimate example of a “meta-historical” holiday: an event that commemorates an historical event and also has specific meanings and teachings for us today. With the challenges of COVID-19 so present in everyone’s consciousness, the lessons to learn from Passover are even more important than ever, both theologically and politically.
As most people know, the holiday is based on the ancient Hebrews’ journey over 3,000 years ago from slavery to Pharaoh into freedom. (For those who don’t believe in the historical truth of the Exodus, it should be recognized that many of the “other nations” who also left Egypt with the Hebrews, such as the Yoruba people of Nigeria, had their own oral legends of Moses prior to the white man coming to Africa.) After nine plagues were sent upon the Egyptians, the tenth plague was the slaying of the firstborn of Egypt. The Hebrews slaughtered lambs and put the blood on the doorpost of each Hebrew home. God would then “pass over” the homes with blood on the doorpost, and only the Egyptian firstborn would die. (For those who wish to study the story in detail, it should be studied either in the original Hebrew, or using a JPS or Artscroll edition, which are translated directly from the original Hebrew to English.) The Seder meal is a recapitulation of that journey from slavery to freedom through words, songs, and symbolic foods to represent the story.
In looking at the biblical text, we can see a question that must be asked. The text says that God will see the blood on the door and know to pass over that home (Ex. 12:13). But why would an all-knowing God need the blood to know which home is Hebrew and which is not? It is here that we see a teaching that is as powerful today as it was 3,400 years ago.
The marking of the doorposts was an action entirely based on faith, and with the ultimate risk. Displaying the blood was a visible sign of rebellion. If on the next day, the Egyptian firstborn had still been alive, then the Egyptian soldiers would have certainly killed the residents of every home marked with blood. Putting the blood on the door was an action that each Hebrew performed in their individual home solely based on faith. Had their faith been misplaced, they would have died. If their faith was correct, then they would be redeemed.
They acted based on faith and rejected any actions based on fear.
This is the lesson we can all take to heart in these difficult times. To act based on faith and not fear. And not just to speak of our faith, but to act based on it.
The ancient Hebrews did not act foolishly and go attack the enemy that they justifiably feared. They demonstrated faith and acted upon that faith by placing the blood on the doors. Similarly, we need to be honest and recognize the dangers of this enemy of COVID-19. It is highly contagious, all too often fatal, and we do not know enough about it. This is a real truth. But like our ancestors, we too need to rely on the spiritual shield of our faith. However, that does not mean we need to be foolish.
On the very first Passover, each family gathered individually. Although many of us are accustomed to hosting large Seders for fifty people or more, this year we must celebrate like our ancestors with only our small immediate families. Many families are having virtual Seders via Zoom, and it is right that we should limit the physical contact on this Seder night.
But we need to remember at our Seders, and in every aspect of our lives, the deeper teaching of Passover. True freedom of any sort only comes as a result of action based on faith…and never fear.
This virus will pass, and life will go on. But the panic that is arising is significantly more dangerous than the pandemic. All too often, people are basing their actions on the backward model of fear over faith. It is ever-present around us. We see it with people hoarding food and toilet paper; with the fear manifesting a volatile stock market and economy; and we are starting to see the results of actions based in fear through the dictates of local political leaders like Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has now offered rewards to people who report their neighbors for leaving their homes.
The last two examples are the most disconcerting. It is the tradition of Passover that all guests are welcome to the Seder and that we share our prayers and our food with each other. Hoarding food and supplies is antithetical to the meaning of Passover. This hoarding is based on the fear that “there will not be enough,” as opposed to having faith and sharing with one another. It is a recipe for slavery rather than a practice of freedom.
Even more disturbing is the overreaching by people like Garcetti. Not only is he demanding that people base their lives on fear (like Pharaoh of old), but he is rewarding people for turning on each other for selfish gain, and attempting to increase fear exponentially among the people.
There are many reasons that officials like Garcetti might want to increase fear among the populace and turn neighbors against each other (while at the same time he has placed the Los Angeles homeless in unsafe shelters that were previously community centers in suburbs…directly against CDC guidelines). While thousands of homeless are being placed unsafely close to each other, at the same time churches and synagogues are not allowed to congregate in safe spaces. But we do not concern ourselves during Passover with the reasons why Pharaoh acted as he did: we commit ourselves to act righteously and based on faith.
How can we combat this fear that is seeming to become all-powerful? Passover gives us the answer.
We must share what we have with others, without fearing that we will lack in the future. We must have faith that the economy will recover under the guidance of an administration that has created the successful economy of the last three years. And we must act on that faith by investing and supporting local businesses, continuing to give charity to our causes, and helping (not “reporting”) our neighbors with their needs.
We must gather together with our immediate family and celebrate the Seder as our ancestors did 3,400 years ago: with intimate dialogue about God and freedom. With a commitment to never allow ourselves to be controlled by any self-appointed Pharaoh who tries to lead us into fear. We must return to our core values and strengthen each other’s faith. Passover teaches us that faith and fear cannot coexist and that our actions must always be based on faith as a choice.
We also need to be creative, recognizing the dangers and challenges of the time without being scared by those challenges. As Jews, we don’t need to have large Seders, and we should limit their physical size; keeping them intimate and/or via online conferencing. My friend Pastor Rob McCoy recently held a beautiful Palm Sunday service at his church that was streamed online. He was courageous and creative enough to let people come pray in the sanctuary, having a few chairs socially distant from one another and letting people say their prayers and move through…and he was wise and compassionate enough to also let people drive through to get their sacraments delivered to them in their cars by gloved volunteers if they preferred. The Yaqui Indians in Tucson are having all of their Holy Week ceremonies as they have for centuries, but limiting visitors. They are performing all of their rituals, but condensing them into daytime observance to avoid the late nights that usually occur each year and are riskier to participants’ health.
Whether it’s a virtual Seder or a carefully crafted environment, this is what we all need to do this year to honor the Passover: be creative in our practices based on our commitments to faith.
And we need to remember the essential teaching of Passover: that action based on faith results in freedom, joy, and peace.
May we all choose to reject the modern Pharaohs of fear-mongering. May we instead subjugate any fears we have and replace them with faith that, as King Solomon said, “This too shall pass.” And may we make all of our actions be based on that faith; come together as neighbors and Americans; and celebrate the true freedom that comes out of acting on faith based in wisdom.
Chag Sameach; Happy Easter; Feliz Pascua, and Happy Passover to us all!