Do you remember Passover a year ago? There was a complete lockdown; we were not allowed to leave our homes. We could not be with our families for the Seder. “Woe is me,” we all said.
We observed the Seder and the holiday as best we could. Our table was set beautifully; we each read from the Haggadah; we each performed the rituals in the way that was meaningful to us.
Now it is Passover again. Hopefully we will have the opportunity of celebrating with our family as we always did before 2020. However, to enjoy the Seder fully, we must ensure that our home has been cleansed carefully.
Two revealing illustrations in a Haggadah from Mexico point to what each of us must be doing to get our homes ready for Passover. The search for hametz is paralleled by the search for COVID-19. Without the search where would we be?
The first depiction is a father using his magnifying glass, working as hard as he can to find the remaining hametz. The father reminds us what has been a major part of our lives this past year. We wash our hands, we wipe our sinks, we are very exacting about our pots and pans being completely clean. We have been educated through the TV and Internet to follow the “rules” that give us more of a chance to escape COVID-19.
In this same Haggadah, children carefully examine every piece of furniture to find the afikoman. As they pride themselves in making the discovery, symbolically, they want their home free of the virus. They are under 16 and fear what might happen to them because they have not been vaccinated.
LAST YEAR in my diur mugan (senior residence) during total lockdown, we were each given a complete Seder meal for Passover night and an extra-special cleaning by the staff. I tried to infuse my Seder with new insights not my own. My friends and family helped me considerably; I wrote to them and they showered me with what I had asked for – descriptions of a memorable Seder. As I had promised, I read each of their letters during the course of my Seder. As all of you out there, I was not going to be defeated by this virus.
Living in the killing fields of corona, we can understand better what it meant to cross through the Reed (Red) Sea on dry land. The pursuit by Pharaoh and his horsemen has helped define the challenge of corona. Once, Pharaoh and his troops were no longer alive, our ancestors were ready to move forward. Fortunate to have gotten vaccinated, our shots are the miracle by which we can defeat corona and cross the Sea of Darkness because our safety is assured.
In two Haggadot, one from this century and one from the 19th century, we can feel the excitement of crossing in safety. In one, which was published a few years ago by Koren, we see the faces of Jews of this current era, smiling as they march along only looking forward – along with a few famous Jews that you can pick out you can find if you look carefully. Jews of all ages are marching with smiles on their faces. Alas, no social distancing. We still believe they will survive. I am sure that when you study that image, you will see that they are us. Hopefully as we come out of the “virus darkness,” we will continue to follow the regulations established by the government.
In the other illustration, from 1878, an unknown artist was inspired by the midrash that said that the Jews crossed by tribes through the Red Sea. Reproduced in my American Heritage Haggadah, vintage 1992, that artist has drawn the Israelites crossing over via capsulot (capsules). Moses is on a mountain peak watching so no one will break the tribal ranks. Two artistic interpretations – each underscoring a point that we have experienced in this corona crisis.
ONE OF the greatest Haggadot ever created because of its calligraphy and illustrations is by Arthur Szyk. He is movingly referred to by this testament: the artist as a soldier. Szyk was a native of Poland, who moved to London in the 1920s.
My late wife and I were taken by his artistry even before we knew who he was. When we were students in Israel in 1963-1964, we bought a small version of the Syzk Haggadah in blue velvet (actually fake). We so delighted in that book that we chose to buy a second one for a gift. Easy marketing some would say.
The story of the Haggadah is very dramatic. Szyk wanted to express his anger through his beautiful, brilliant Haggada pointing out, in 1939, what Nazis were already doing to the Jews. He placed tiny swastikas in various places in the Haggadah. The British Censorship Board had to rule which new art books could be published. Because of the Chamberlain-Hitler pact, the Board made Szyk remove the swastikas.
The history of that Haggadah is quite dramatic. Irvin Ungar, an antiquarian bookseller, decided several decades ago that he would track down the original manuscripts of the Haggadah and the manuscripts of the hundreds of other subjects that Szyk focused on throughout his lifetime. The massive collection is now housed in the library of the University of California at Berkeley.
From the original drawings of the Haggadah, Ungar published several new versions of the “Szyk.” At the New York Historical Society Gallery, a major exhibition was dedicated to Syzk in 2017. Large crowds of visitors found the exhibit most important in telling the stories of Szyk’s attacks on antisemitism. Using Szyk’s noted political drawings, which had not been seen for years, Ungar wrote a book that won the National Jewish Book Award.
Two illustrations relate directly to what we have meticulously practiced to guard against falling prey to corona. There is a Szyk illustration of a workman carefully washing his hands and then the other early steps in the Haggadah following the cleansing process are drawn.
What truly struck me is Abraham and the three angels. Social distancing is a significant part of our corona struggle, as is the locale where to eat. The visitors were asked to sit outside under a tree while the food was being prepared. The power of the Szyk illustration is the figure of Abraham tending to these three. Another step most necessary to combat corona, I think, is found in this image of a greatly acknowledged artist.
WE CAN also turn to the Ten Plagues to see what message they have for us. They are remembered via the ten drops we spill from our full cups. Specifically, when we are provided the description of the plague of darkness, the text tells us “all the people of Israel had light in all their dwelling.” During the pandemic, surely we have lived through lockdowns, stores shuttered, children out of school learning through Zoom. I myself have two grandchildren who have not been in school for an entire year. More than 6,000 Israelis have died from the coronavirus. Death has hit powerfully. When some loved ones died, the families could not be at their side to say goodbye.
Fortunately, in time, we were able to draw upon our own inner light to obtain the strength to endure. That has not been easy because corona is wicked, and we never knew where it would strike. We ask, with tears in our eyes, how we can go on, but somehow we have.
We waited anxiously for the vaccine, never expecting that the great minds and the resolve of companies could create vaccines for the world in such record time. Here in Israel, we have been fortunate because the process of inoculation was planned so expertly. However, we also recall that even before the Exodus individuals created “fake news” so that Moses would be crippled and unable to lead as God expected him to do. The vaccination against corona has been challenged as well. But Joshua was told by God, “be strong and of good courage” – be vaccinated, the only route to continued existence.
The emphasis on social distancing is captured in an Ethiopian Haggadah. In front of the Kotel we can see the kassim spread out. Significant to note, in this past year, crowding at the Kotel was never reported. The officials in charge have used the kapsulot to ensure that none of those present could receive or transmit the virus.
For those of us who have been blessed to survive corona, we recall all those months of anxiety and, yes, we have witnessed what individuals are capable of: on one hand, human pettiness, greed, self-centeredness. But then we were privileged also to observe human nobility: generosity, self-surrender, real conviction and action.”
This year as we have readied for Passover, we are struck by the parallel to corona restrictions: “Passover had its own code of purity. The Jewish people were required to assure the purification of all vessels and especially vessels that had come into contact with hametz.”
The role of parents who have been at home during the many lockdowns has been important. They have undertaken to assist their children in preparing for their Zoom lessons. Parents have fulfilled the commandment that emphasized “parents were obliged to inspire their children.” Listening to Israeli parents answering the question how they and their children spent the daily education hours, they pointed out that embracing their children’s education helped them understand how their children were progressing. Many rose to the challenge of truly assisting their “home pupils” in those areas of studies in which they could offer enrichment.
For the majority of us who have been blessed to survive corona, we do mourn the 6,000 of our fellow citizens who died. They can never be forgotten by their loved ones. Corona has been hell. The striking illustration of “Nefesh Kol Chai” reminds us poignantly how precious every soul is.
Enjoy the Passover Seder as if it was the first one you have experienced. As it reaches its peak, recite with fervor Leshana haba’a b’Yerushalayim habenuya.