Every year, as we sit down for our Seder — the celebratory meal of the Jewish holiday of Passover — my dad, my uncle and my grandfather engage in a silent, unannounced competition for who can be the first to jokingly exclaim: “Once we were slaves, now we are free, let’s eat!” Though the winner of our competition proudly recites this line as if he had just thought of it, the phrase is commonplace at Seders around the world.
This year, for so many reasons, our Passover will be different. We are celebrating Passover during a plague. This time, the plague is one that afflicts the entire world, not just the ancient Egyptians from whom the Jews of Exodus escaped. The COVID-19 pandemic has left all of us — Jewish or not — shuttered in our homes, afraid to go to the grocery store and unable to gather together with loved ones. Our Passover celebrations will take place over Zoom, and our spirits will be dampened as we miss our friends and family and the traditional dishes they bring along.
At the Seder each year, we are commanded to imagine ourselves as if we had been redeemed from slavery in Egypt. Generally, Jews of my generation have difficulty making sense of this part of the ritual. This is probably because our situation is more secure than any other group of Jews in history. How can we adequately remember the pain and suffering of hundreds of years of slavery while sitting comfortably around my grandmother’s table? Why should we dwell on our painful past when the Jewish people have excelled and prospered for most of our lifetimes? Once we were slaves. Now we are free. Let’s eat. Easy!
Despite how far from my current reality this ritual often feels, COVID-19 provides a new perspective. As we pray eagerly for our own 21st-century plague to end, we need less help this year pretending as though we are less-than-free.
The Torah teaches us in Exodus that when God led the Jewish people out of Egypt and to the Land of Israel, God did not take the most direct route, but rather “led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.” Torah commentators tell us this is because God did not believe the former slaves by themselves were sufficiently equipped to build a new nation. Having suffered in bondage for so long, this generation would lack the imagination and strength necessary for full redemption and therefore needed to bear children who could fill this gap. Yet God waited 40 years — not 80 or 100 — because a generation that could not remember the bonds of oppression would not be careful, thoughtful and cautious enough to lead the Jewish people by themselves.
Passover during a plague is a wake-up call to the many ways we are not completely free. It’s a wake-up call that even as we celebrate redemption for ourselves, so many around us and across the globe do not enjoy the basic human rights that make freedom worthwhile. And it’s a wake-up call that though Jews around the world are more prosperous and secure than we have ever been, anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head in a serious and frightening way.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust and the mass persecution of Soviet Jewry, perhaps we, too, are wandering through the desert. As the Jewish people have settled more or less safely and comfortably in two distinct homelands, my generation and my parents’ generation have been raised without knowing the true horror of widespread anti-Semitic oppression. And when it has arisen in the past few years, when our president minimized the cries of white supremacists shouting “Jews will not replace us,” when Stars of David were prohibited at an LGBTQ solidarity march and when young Jews like me have been asked to check our Zionism at the gates of our campuses, I fear we may have been too quick to dismiss it. Once we were slaves. Now we are free. That’s it.
Luckily for us, the Passover story shows us a way forward. As Moses pleaded to Pharaoh for our people’s freedom, Pharaoh offered many times to let only some of the Jews go, but Moses refused. He clung to the belief that only if the entire Jewish community, together, could leave Egypt would it be worth leaving at all. And, as the Jews turned back at the shore of the Red Sea and saw the Egyptian army chasing after them, they sang joyously and faithfully knowing that they would survive.
In the current plagues that face us, we have a responsibility to join together and guarantee that our entire world community is able to weather this storm. COVID-19 reminds us that our obligation to strive for a better world is ongoing. Passover reminds us that our strength in fulfilling this obligation lies in the resilience of our communities and the power of our spirit.
As I celebrate Passover during a plague, I feel a taste of the profound discomfort that so many generations of Jews have felt before me. I pray that each of our loved ones remains safe and healthy through this difficult time. I also pray that we use the discomfort we now feel to recognize the ways in which we, as Jews and as humans, are not truly free. Next year, may all of us be together with the communities we love. And when we are, may our communities be stronger and our spirits more vibrant than ever before.
JONATHAN SCHWARTZ is a junior in Franklin College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .