The Power of Passover During a Plague

By Alana Newhouse

New York Times, March 30, 2020

This year, Passover falls at the beginning of April — smack in the middle of what some experts estimate will be the peak of the coronavirus pandemic in America. It’s not just the timing of the holiday — built around a retelling of the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt — that feels off. It’s that every aspect of its story and rituals now seems almost cruelly ironic.

The Passover Seder centers on the experience of being thrust out of our homes, but these days we feel trapped inside of them. The story involves miraculous plagues that saved us; today we pray for the end of one. There’s the commandment to clean our homes of all non-Passover food, which we just spent innumerable hours and dollars hoarding.

Then there’s the real heartbreaker: The Seder is when we traditionally gather with family, friends and even strangers. “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” we say. These days, many of us can’t even be in the same house as our own parents or children. We don’t come within six feet of strangers.

And yet, there will still be Passover. Indeed, I’ve come to think of Passover as the stem cell of the Jewish people, a reserve of core source material with the proven ability to generate new meaning and solace in circumstances even more extreme than what we are living through now…

…Most Jews throughout history have not been free, whether from murderous regimes or famines or pandemics. What we have been is devoted to the idea that we deserve to be. “The Haggadah’s purpose is not, in fact, to present a narrative,” Rabbi Mendel Herson, associate dean of the Rabbinical College of America, explained to me. “It’s a how-to guide to finding our own personal liberation.”

That is our obligation, and our privilege. All the more so in moments when the taste of freedom — from oppression, from want, from disease — is not yet ours.

Alana Newhouse is the editor in chief of Tablet magazine, which just published “The Passover Haggadah: An Ancient Story for Modern Times.”

haggadah Section: Introduction