Let’s face it, COVID has made us take a new hard look at Passover. In 2020, Passover was the moment when we collectively began to understand the full impact of the pandemic. As normal life imploded, our holiday norms did as well.
The Jewish calendar conspires with the seasons so that our preparations for the holiday coincide with the first blooms of spring amplifying the hopeful nature of Passover. Like bears emerging from hibernation, we let go of winter and gather with family and friends in grand celebration. The rituals and liturgy of the holiday entreat us to remember that we ourselves were once slaves in Egypt and to revel in our liberation and promise of what is ahead.
Last year, however, instead of feeling liberated, we felt trapped. Instead of feeling hopeful, we felt scared. We scrambled to modify recipes that normally feed a crowd. We worried about loved ones who were sick or stuck or newly out of work. Looking ahead, we were unsure and confused. As we grappled to master the novelty of a holiday by Zoom, we ended the seder with a twist on the traditional prayer “Next Year in Jerusalem,” with a prayer that in 2021 we would be together again.
Now the daffodils once again dot the landscape, but we are not together. It has been a hard year. We are not as naive as we were then.
I clearly remember thinking last year that given a lifetime of fabulous seders, I could do one that was highly unusual. Given all the energy I was putting into acquiring and cleaning all my groceries, worrying about loved ones and trying to make sense of the new abnormal, I did not have the enthusiasm I usually have for the rituals of the holiday.
But when I sat down for seder, with a computer next to the seder plate and family members from around the country sharing from their virtual boxes, the rituals and story gave me comfort. Though the story did not resonate with the existential and practical angst I was feeling, the enduring nature of these traditions were a reminder that we would survive.
A year in, the “thrill”’ of Zoom has worn off and I am mourning the loss of a second Passover cycle without my octogenarian parents and other family members. But the story of the Exodus has become more personally powerful than ever before. After approximately 400 days of collective trauma, I am relating to the 400 years of Israelite bondage in a way I never, in my privileged life, have. As hard as it has been to stay inside, stay apart, mask up and be patient over the last year, how much harder it must have been for our ancestors.
The return of warmer weather means I can once again gather with friends outside. With vaccines more readily available, my extended family is planning for a bat mitzvah in April and a wedding in the summer of 2022. This year the signs of spring are accompanied by the possibility of liberation in our own time.
I have a small sense of relief our ancestors must have felt after they passed through the sea and were able to look back on the trauma that was behind them. And like our ancestors, I will sing with joy and hope this year at Passover.
However, even as I embrace the holiday and its symbolic and real meaning for 2021, I am cautioned that the miracle of Passover was but a moment for our ancestors. For while they were liberated at the sea, it would take much journeying in the wilderness before they reached the promised land.
It turns out that liberation is only one step in the process, one worthy of celebration but not complete in and of itself. We, too, will need to wait to reach the promised land, where we gather without masks with as many people as we like in whatever venue we like.
The vaccines are working, but we will count many days before it is available to everyone who wants to take it worldwide. Nor is everyone on board with vaccination, a challenge that will need to be overcome if we hope to achieve herd immunity.
So this Passover, I am hopeful once again but I am also realistic. As our tradition teaches us, celebrate the possibilities and prepare for the journey.