Judaism has always encouraged questions. Our oral tradition is founded upon the Socratic method of “questions and answers” lobbied between study partners or chavrutot. On Seder night, questions are particularly pivotal; multiple irregularities are introduced into the Seder to prompt questions.
In fact, the Torah itself encoded four different “approaches” to the Exodus story - which are enshrined in the Haggadah as the discussion with “four sons.”
During a typical Passover, standard questions serve as practical instruments to jump-start conversation about our Exodus from Egypt. During a pandemic, in addition to the standard questions about our Exodus, Jews face additional questions. The Passover story evolves with history and takes new meaning in each generation. What contemporary questions hover above our Passover of 2021?
Here are four novel questions for Passover during a pandemic, as well as some basic guidelines to consider.
Question 1: How could there be such evil and suffering in our world?
Obviously, this isn’t a novel question as, perennially, mankind has been baffled by this riddle. The current suffering the world is experiencing exacerbates an ancient question for which there are many classical answers; elaborating upon the philosophical answers lies well beyond the scope of this article. Here are four “baseline” truths to frame the conversation:
1) God is merciful and cares about human life
2) We often are perplexed by His management of our world
3) Often, watching the world suffer helps us appreciate the supervision and kindness which God typically bestows upon us under normal conditions
4) As difficult as this situation seems, our condition is far superior to that of previous generations. Pandemics of the past raged uncontrollably. As Jews, we have experienced worse horrors, such as the Holocaust or the backbreaking nightmare of more than 200 years of Egyptian slavery.
Question 2: If God chose us as His people, why are we suffering like all other nations?
Yes, God chose us, liberated us from Egypt and delivered His Torah to us. As His chosen nation we are meant to serve as the world’s conscience and are intended to showcase a life of moral principles and obedience to God’s will. Throughout history we have often suffered antisemitism precisely because we are different and because we challenge the world to higher moral ground.
The corona crisis has a different feel. Jew and non-Jew alike are threatened by this epidemic. Our suffering isn’t “directly” related to our being chosen as God’s children. It is difficult to identify a distinctive Jewish element to a global contagion. However, our “response” to the crisis definitely is a product of being chosen. If a Jew is responsible for humanity, ideally, we should be setting examples for humanity – in our discipline and commitment to public health guidelines. Sadly, some in the Jewish community didn’t fully comprehend this message quickly enough; strict adherence is both medically vital and part of being a God-fearing Jew. Equally disappointing has been the politicization of our response to this pandemic. Our management of the crisis could have potentially united us against a common invisible enemy; instead, it deeply divided us and underscored the fault lines in Israeli society. Disappointingly, we haven’t fully conveyed the sense of being God’s chosen people in our collective response
to this pandemic. One bright spot is our early and accelerated vaccination process. Hopefully, our national investment in this process will provide vital information in assisting other nations in exiting the pandemic.
This year in particular, Passover demands that we reinforce our identity as God’s chosen. It has been difficult to sense that amidst global suffering and we haven’t always behaved as if we were chosen.
Question 3: Is the world coming to an end?
Judaism views history as cyclical and predetermined. It isn’t open-ended but is inevitably advancing toward a pre-established messianic conclusion and the introduction of an era of universal welfare. Possibly, the transition to that messianic period may be rocky. If our religious behavior warrants, we may have an easier “landing.” Alternatively, it is certainly possible that apocalyptic events may precede the messianic era.
However, two truths remain immutable. First, the world will not end or be destroyed. After the flood, God already promised humanity that the world would never again be totally wrecked. There may be dramatic and even traumatic events, but the world will continue – and continue to progress. Our reality may change and there may be great tragedy, but the world isn’t “ending.”
Second, it is perilous to attempt to predict messianic events; messianic predictions can raise unrealistic hopes that, if unfulfilled, can lead to despair. We wait patiently without reading too much into historical events – even seismic ones such as this pandemic. Maimonides asserted that messianic details are so shrouded in mystery that it is almost impossible to predict or otherwise discern the experience. Once the messianic era arrives, the transformation of our world will become obvious and undeniable to everyone. Until that point, it is dangerous to interpret events as precursors to the “end of days.”
Question 4: Is it appropriate to celebrate Passover when we are surrounded by so much suffering in the world?
Ironically, commemoration of Passover is even more essential while struggling with a worldwide epidemic. Over the past year, medical personnel have valiantly attended to the sick while remarkable teams of scientists have rapidly produced vaccines, offering a horizon of hope. Nations and communities around the world have marshaled incredible resources in combating this crisis. However, despite our greatest efforts, humanity will, by definition, always come up short. Full healing and restoration for our broken world can only be delivered from God. When the final era of human history arrives, the entire world will be healed physically, politically, spiritually and morally. The march toward this utopia began on the first Passover when Jews became a chosen nation and launched the march of history. Passover night is referred to as leil shimurim because the date is reserved for a future “full redemption” that will complement the first stage of redemption we celebrate on Passover. Fundamentally, the events of Passove
r are completely consistent with our struggle to heal our world.
At a practical level we must decide how to express our commemoration of Passover. We have lost so much this past year and ignoring that is both insensitive as well as historically myopic. From an emotional standpoint should we be happy or sad? The obvious answer is both. As humans we are often challenged to process multiple and conflicting emotions. This Passover we must be happy while we process the sadness in our world. God crafted our hearts with multiple chambers because He often expects us to simultaneously process multiple and antithetical emotions.
Chag sameach v’kasher.
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.