What’s Passover?

The question sounded so simple and innocent coming from my 6-year-old granddaughter, and yet the answer, in this time of a plague that has paralyzed the world, might scare her more than ever.

Especially when all of us, Jews and Gentiles, are praying that the Angel of Death pass over our homes and not strike the people we love with coronavirus.

She saw the box of matzah her Jewish Papa had on the kitchen counter and wondered why we called this cracker “bread.” I wondered if maybe we should buy it in bulk, since it probably lasts forever.

As I explained that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, her older sister and brother, 8 and 11, gathered around to hear the details and to fill in the parts they knew. Just tell the essence of the story, I reminded myself, don’t scare them any more than this virus already has.

I grew up Catholic, so my telling of the story isn’t as fluent as those who can quote Exodus and their trusty Haggadah from memory.

As I told it, it seemed new to me. People seeking freedom and facing resistance along the way. Moses trying to lead people who weren’t always cooperative. Their faith being challenged every step of the way.

The Israelites fled; we hunker down and isolate. They lived on manna that fell daily from heaven; we’re hoarding food from Costco. They clung to their family; we have to keep a safe distance.

Passover hasn’t been canceled. It has been challenged. It has been deepened.

I read a better way to explain it on Chabad.org in an article by Tzvi Freeman, who wrote, “Passover means to pass over every challenge.”

Who hasn’t been challenged by this global pandemic?

My favorite part of Passover is the singing of “Dayenu” that tells the story through the eyes of gratitude. “It would have been enough” is the response every step of the way. “If He had brought us out of Egypt and had not carried out judgments against them, Dayenu, it would have sufficed.”

It reminds me to scan my own life through eyes of gratitude, not fear. If God had just given me five sisters, it would have been enough. If God had just given me five brothers, it would have been enough. (You have to have a sense of humor when you come from a large family.)

When I scan the gifts of a lifetime, my parents, my siblings, my daughter, my husband, two stepsons, their spouses, three grandchildren, my in-laws, countless friends, my health, my career, my home, the blessings are endless.

So are yours.

The challenge is to see the blessings even when we can’t see them face to face, to stay connected to each other and to our faith even as we are apart, even as things seem to fall apart, even as we are challenged, even as we are shaken to the core of our being.

Our being. That’s where all this is taking us. Away from all our doing to our deepest, holy being.

Freeman wrote: “On the night when we were rescued from the bondage of Ancient Egypt, sit with your family, sit with your roommate, sit just you and the Creator of the Universe alone. Eat the matzahs and bitter herbs, drink the wine and tell the greatest story ever told.

“While the whole world is grounded on the tarmac, tell the story of an exodus from excruciating restriction to holy freedom. The story of our own people, of you and I, of some 4,000 years of eternity.

“As we all await our exodus back to freedom, tell the ancient story our ancestors told. Tell it to whoever is there in your house. Most of all, tell it to yourself.”

And tell yourself this: as hard as this all gets, we can do hard. This pandemic is hard, but we can do hard.

The Jews have been doing hard for thousands of years, in times so much harder than these, celebrating Passover during the Holocaust, in ghettos, in poverty, in concentration camps.

It will be sad to miss out on family and friends. But instead of calling it social distancing, it is our greatest act of solidarity. We are keeping each other alive by staying apart.

Go ahead and open the door for Elijah, but if he does walk in, pass him the hand sanitizer and keep him 6 feet away.


Letters, commentaries and opinions appearing in the Cleveland Jewish News do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Cleveland Jewish Publication Company, its board, officers or staff.

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