More than a few Jewish people have commented on the irony of celebrating a holiday with widespread plagues at its center during a global health crisis.
Passover commemorates the liberation of Israelites from their bondage in Egypt. It is a time to reflect on how throughout their history, Jews have survived extraordinary challenges. It also offers the opportunity to ponder how they have enriched the world over the millennia.
The central figure in the Passover narrative is Moses. The Hebrew scriptures detail how God chose him to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into freedom. This would allow them to live according to the tenants of a covenant prescribed by God.
Moses implored Ramses II, the pharaoh of Egypt, time and again to set the Israelites free. But Ramses repeatedly denied this appeal.
So God sent a series of plagues upon the Egyptians. During the final one, an angel of death flew over the region to strike down the firstborn children of every family. The Israelites who smeared their doorposts with blood from a lamb were spared, while numerous Egyptians suffered — including Ramses.
The pharaoh finally relented, and this led to the Exodus. But he changed his mind and sent his troops to recapture the Israelites, only to be defeated by God.
According to Hebrew scripture, Moses received the Ten Commandments inscribed by God on tablets of stone. This outlined how God wanted them to live. The Israelites then embarked on a 40-year journey to the land that God had promised them through their ancestors.
Jews commemorate Passover with a Seder. During this ceremony, traditional foods are eaten while prayers are offered and rituals are observed. This celebration helps bind Jewish families to each other through a shared history.
But can Seders actually be held during the COVID-19 pandemic? How can extended families experience the fellowship of their loved ones under stay-at-home orders?
This will require some adjustments, but modern technology provides a solution. Families can use software such as FaceTime, Skype or Zoom to be with each other in a virtual setting. And for those who can’t join each other online, there’s the good old fashioned telephone.
Medical professionals are urging people to take this route rather than gathering together physically. While being under the same roof is incredibly tempting, savings lives is critical.
It’s natural for us to want to be in the presence of those we love during special moments. So the global outbreak of a virus we still know very little about challenges us at these cherished times.
However, we should keep in mind that Passover represents overcoming the worst adversities that life has to offer. At its foundation, freedom is about survival.
And this now depends on our willingness to give each other they space we all need to remain healthy. What greater sign of love can we offer to one another?
The Passover story is historically significant in at least several ways. The Ten Commandments, for example, strongly influenced views on administering justice in Western civilization. And the narrative of escaping slavery inspired many black Americans during their time in bondage.
Passover begins tonight at sundown and continues through April 16. While not Jewish in origin, the lyrics to the black spiritual “Go Down Moses” appropriately summarize this occasion:
When Israel was in Egypt’s land
Let my people go
Oppress’d so hard they could not stand
Let my people go
Go down, Moses
Way down in Egypt’s land
Tell old Pharaoh
Let my people go
To all who value justice and freedom, Chag Pesach Sameach!