The Passover seder is famously known for the four questions that introduce the telling of the narrative of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt. This year, astute children might be asking the following four questions:
1. Why is this Passover different in that we only have our immediate family with us? Usually we have many guests including friends and out-of-town relatives.
2. Usually we put our cell phones and tablets away during the seder. Why is everyone using Facetime, Facebook, Zoom and Skype with people who live so far away?
3. Why aren’t we going to synagogue during the Passover holiday as we usually do?
4. Why isn’t everyone happy during Passover? Aren’t we commanded to be joyful during our festivals?
Every sentient human being knows full well that this year, and this Pesach, is very different due to a worldwide pandemic that weighs heavily on everyone’s heart. The answers to the above questions are therefore self-evident.
Common sense dictates that we need to isolate ourselves so as not to contract the dreaded virus. We are instructed by local, state and federal authorities to keep a safe distance from others and to shelter in place.
But as unfamiliar as we are with this new reality, we would be wise to remember that the very first Passover was observed by our ancestors in solitude as well. The Israelites, ready to leave Egypt, shut themselves in their homes, dashed lamb’s blood against their doorposts and hunkered down as the plague of the death of the firstborn afflicted the Egyptians. Perhaps more than ever, we can identify with our forebears and understand their feelings of angst, fear and insecurity.
Rather than wallow in sorrow and uncertainty however, we would be wise to think of ways to connect with those we love — from family, to friends, to neighbors and co-workers — and to offer them some hope and joy. In recent days, I tried to do my part.
I volunteered to help with a phone tree through my rabbinical association and made over 40 calls to other rabbis around the country, many older and living alone, simply to touch base and offer a “wellness check.”
I offered to make more calls, but thankfully, there were plenty of other volunteers as well. I posted something on Facebook, offering to talk and counsel anyone who needed some company. I have lost count of the number of people who called to hear a friendly voice and words of encouragement. As a result I have become somewhat expert in the use of FaceTime and Facebook Messenger, something which had previously eluded me.
I called relatives with whom I hadn’t spoken in years, some former congregants who I know had experienced losses, illness or other difficult times. I would like to think that I was able to help them, but I know for certain that it meant a great deal to me. Instead of focusing solely on my own needs and those of my immediate family, I was able to broaden my horizons and perform what I considered an important mitzvah.
Let me underscore that you don’t need to be a rabbi to reach out to others and make a difference.
Some years ago, a woman in my congregation called me and said she was quitting the congregation. “Why?” I asked. She said, “Because I was sick in the hospital for weeks and nobody visited me.” Somewhat perplexed, I responded, “What do you mean? I visited you multiple times!” I will never forget her response. She said, “You’re the rabbi. You had to visit me. But nobody else did.”
This Passover I cannot stress enough that reaching out to others, expressing love, care and concern is not the exclusive domain of members of the clergy. Everyone has the power to make a phone call, send an email or to reach out in any way that he or she can. In so doing, you will bring light to someone experiencing darkness, and warmth when the world seems so cold and lonely.
We conclude our seders with the famous declaration “Next Year in Jerusalem.” While that would be ideal, I would settle on “Next Year let’s all celebrate together again.” Dayenu. That would be enough. JN
Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky is a retired pulpit rabbi, military chaplain and past president of the Phoenix Area Board of Rabbis.