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Passover in the time of the plague

My daughter just saw her first rainbow. We stood between the sun and the drizzle and I pronounced the words of the blessing: “Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who remembers the covenant, and is faithful to His covenant, and keeps His promise.”

I’d always been puzzled by the language — repetitive and seemingly redundant. Now, confined to our yard, fearful of the world beyond the sidewalk, the pleading tone was resonant.

With Passover approaching, we are all pleading — for the wellbeing of our families, for our country, for the world. And at the same time, we’re wondering how we can possibly conduct a meaningful seder. The essence of the holiday is coming together: the old generation and the very young, multiple households at one table. This year, for “Ma Nishtana,” the youngest family member capable of speaking Hebrew at my seder table will be my wife.

That’s not the only part of the Haggadah I’m struggling with.

There’s the touching of the fingers to the plate, the drops of wine for every plague visited upon the Egyptians. Now, there will be no need to intentionally reduce our joy. The people we love, people who’ve joined together at Pesach for close to a decade, are out of reach. We are trapped between two menacing walls of water: the absurdity of a Zoom seder on the left, and on the right, breaking the middle matzah without my daughter’s grandparents. How are we to have a Passover that is not drenched in sorrow, drowned by the daily death counts in the news?

The entire Haggadah is a series of perilous balancing acts. It holds an awareness of loss, grief, poverty and hardship on the one hand, and on the other, it presents the bounty of springtime, the anticipation of freedom. It tells a story of redemption, but it was composed by rabbis for a community in exile, despairing for their homeland.

One of these balancing acts concerns the number Ten. Because we’re in the future, we know our ancestors left slavery and were led into the desert, eventually to receive Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. But before that, ten plagues decimated the Egyptians.

The Rabbis of the Haggadah don’t explicitly ask why the Torah favors the number ten, but they do offer this strange tidbit:

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good Roy G. Biv to help me recall whether blue or indigo comes first, but really — does this one merit to be canonized in the instruction manual of the seder, at this most sensitive moment, recounting the horror of plague, disease, death?

The Haggadah goes on to reveal this riddle’s solution in numerical code; three rabbis compute that there were not ten, but 600 plagues in Egypt and at the Red Sea. That, plus the original ten, is 610 — three short of 613, and that number is deeply symbolic. The Talmudic Rabbis homiletically ascribe 613 as the number of mitzvot: the days of the year, plus the bones of the body.

We’re three short; but if we add those three otherwise inexplicable acronyms, we arrive at 613.

This is no mere game of math; the Rabbis are driving home a kind of ethical calculus: for each instance of Egyptian suffering, the Israelites will soon be accountable to one mitzvah in perpetuity. Human life lost, it seems, must be addressed through mutual commitment, through covenant. That covenant will convey both protection and profit as well as responsibility and expectation. As Jews, we are yoked to a legal code which not only ensures civil society, but which also makes paramount the obligation to feed, to comfort, and to care for the refugee, the widow and the orphan — all of which, I fear, the world will have many more of in the months ahead. Every plague brings about obligation, and the Haggadah points to this austere conclusion in its subtle way.

And yet, we are also commanded to recite, in the seder’s opening moments, the shehecheyanu — the prayer thanking God for sustaining us, for bringing us to this moment. If we’re being honest, we’ll ask: are we really expected to be grateful for this moment, sheltering in our dining rooms, terrified for the well-being of our family, for our medical professionals, for our grocery store workers, for our immune compromised neighbors, for our people on the front lines?

How are we to be joyful in this time of anguish?

The Haggadah, I believe, offers a kind of posture for handling the side-by-side vertigo of joy and suffering. Each year, we sing “mah nishtana” — usually translated as the four questions: “How is this night different from all other nights?” And yet, we get no more questions, and apparently, only four answers.

I believe this is the wrong translation of “mah nishtana.”

The phrase is not a question at all, but an outburst of surprise: how different is this night?! The Talmud reveals that the goal of much of the seder is for children to ask questions, and if they lack the mental acuity, we’ll prime the pump, pointing out the oddities at our table. If our seder doesn’t feel odd, unsettling, uncanny, uncomfortable (no matter how much wine we drink, no matter how far we recline) we’re not doing it right.

The haggadah, in other words, is an instruction manual for surprise. It teaches us to be struck. Dumbfounded. Not to accept any status quo. Neither to sink into the oblivion of despair, nor the complacency of comfort, but to have our eyes and ears and hearts open to the ways that the whole world is different, moment by moment.

Even this moment.

A book and thirteen generations before Moses split the Red Sea, after the flood nearly wiped all life from the face of the earth, God stretched a rainbow across the sky and said: “…When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow is seen in the cloud… I will remember My covenant…between God and every living creature …’

There, too, suffering and the loss of life required a covenant, one created by God, apparently for God’s own eye to behold. Thus, today, we are locked into two covenants. One, the Covenant at Sinai, binds us to care for each other and for our world. That one, built of 613 miztvot, teaches us that the only response to the suffering we’ve witnessed is to commit, each springtime, to our legacy of ethics and interpersonal obligation.

As for that other, older covenant, our sages understood the tremulous balancing act: Some prohibit gazing upon the rainbow, a dazzling reminder of wrath and destruction — or is it a visual manifestation of the glory of God? And yet, when we see it, we must say a blessing. We don’t have the luxury to ask: How can I appreciate a rainbow when so many have perished? How glorious can any simple joy be when our phones stream terrifying news, day and night? That ancient covenant, made with all humanity, invites us to cry out (and the Haggadah prepares us), “Look. How different this moment is… from every other moment!”

Wherever we are, whoever we’re with, whether we’re scrolling through our phones in dread or we’re gazing upon a rainbow, we’re bound to keep our eyes open, to balance our grief with joy. This year, my daughter will taste the bitter herb for the first time. She will sample the charoseth, the mortar reminiscent of our servitude. Sweet, delicious, and somehow traumatic in its recollection of suffering long past. I pray that right now, she will find the joy of being surrounded by her parents, her grandparents joining us via Zoom on our laptop. I pray that one day, like we have done for so many years, we will remember this story to our descendents, all in a better season.

M. Evan Wolkenstein is a high school teacher and author of YA novel “Turtle Boy” (Random House, May 2020). He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Hebrew University, and the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies. His work can be found in Tablet Magazine, The Washington Post, Engadget, My Jewish Learning and BimBam. He lives with his wife and daughter in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter @EvanWolkenstein

Passover in the time of the plague

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