Dr. Deena Aranoff is Director of the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies, Senior Lecturer in Medieval Jewish Studies, and Core Doctoral Faculty at the GTU since 2006.
Call the Passover a Delight
The new moon of the Jewish month of Nissan has appeared. In most years this would usher in a frenzy of activity for Jewish households. We would minimize our purchase of leavened goods (typically bread and cereal); the more organized among us would begin to shop for special Passover items such as hand-baked matzah or chocolate dipped desserts; we would issue or accept invitations to the Passover seder. Our hope would be that on the full moon of the month, we would find ourselves at tables filled with extended family and friends; we would repeat the stories of our ancestors, sing the songs of our families, and eat the recipes that have graced our tables for generations. We would taste bitter herbs, chant songs of gratitude, and settle into a familiar menu of savory dishes and desserts.
The new moon launches a phase of high-intensity preparation for this sacred moment. Passover turns household tasks into ceremonial ones; how we clean, how we shop, with whom we gather—all these elements acquire an acute ritual status. Passover is serious business. It is a time in which the house is turned inside out, upside down, shaken free of old forms, and a new collective is established.
Our current crisis poses a serious challenge to those who wish to step into this enchanted sacred season. The primal energies that are to be summoned toward the Passover holiday are the very same energies that are occupied in face of COVID-19. The work to supply our homes with food, to organize and clean our homes, to tend to our social and family bonds—these activities are now impossibly weighed down by our efforts to secure our wellbeing in the face of COVID-19. In all other years, this sacred season is a welcome disruption to the unremarkable flow of our routine lives; this year we ask: How can we turn our lives upside down, when they are already upside down? How can we embrace the strictures of this season when we lack our basic routines, which, as it turns out, function as a necessary backdrop to these ritual alterations? How can we create sacred time in an age of pandemic?
"Our current crisis poses a serious challenge to those who wish to step into this enchanted sacred season."
I believe we have two options before us. The first is to determine that there simply are no energies left for ceremony. All our energies are accounted for in the effort to stay healthy in face of the virus. The second option is perhaps more life-affirming. We might consider that there is a bit of energy available—like the fabled jar of oil that lit the temple for eight full days–energy that, if well-spent, may provide comfort and elevation in this time of uncertainty and fear. It is this second path that I would like to sketch out here.
How can we bring life to Passover during our current crisis? Perhaps the most expected way is to identify the convergences between the themes of Passover and the pandemic: Are we not experiencing a plague, deprivation, bitterness, and fear? Are we not gathering, huddled, as an angel of death passes through our dwellings? The fears that are stirred up by our crisis bear an uncanny resemblance the themes of the exodus.
While these convergences are certainly worthy of consideration, I believe that if we linger too long on how the crisis mirrors the themes of the holiday, the results will be deflating, and will further weaken our spirits. Do we really need to amplify the terror of this moment? Do we need to stimulate our awareness of our vulnerability, our urge for survival?
I want to propose another approach to this sacred season. I want to suggest that we enliven the elements of delight in the holiday. Some of us recall the great excitement we felt as young children, anticipating the magic of seder night. I propose that we step into that attitude. Let us enliven elements of the holiday that are a source of delight, and perhaps devote less mental energy to the strictures of the day.
What gives us joy about the holiday? Let’s go to that. Go ahead--skip to dessert! Skip to hallel and sing those songs first. I am not suggesting that we loosen the restrictions (though there may be room for that). I am suggesting that we shift the mood of the holiday, that we give it a new character this year.
"In this year when uncertainty and anxiety already surround us, my suggestion is that we change our relationship to the holiday, that we enliven the elements of delight, pleasure, song, and gratitude."
Passover typically brings with it a certain anxiety and puts a household under strain and depravation: no leavened goods, no crumbs upstairs; nothing routine and everything new. In this year when uncertainty and anxiety already surround us, my suggestion is that we change our relationship to the holiday, that we enliven the elements of delight, pleasure, song, and gratitude. This shift may allow each of us to take a long, deep breath and to find room to tell our stories.