Pesach in a Time of Pandemic

Pesach is a time of the year when I am, once again, overwhelmed by the beauty of our tradition’s sacred texts, liturgy and rituals. They are prisms of meaning. For generations, Jews used these sacred texts and rituals to give meaning to their life experience. More frequently than not, the life experiences of our ancestors were harsh and difficult.

It is no surprise that poor people and vulnerable populations are more deeply religious than are people who are affluent. When you have everything that you need, often far more than you really need, religion can become a leisure time activity. One more “activity” in a life full of choices.


This was a dvar torah delivered to Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation (Bethesda, MD) on April 11, 2020, shabbat hol ha-moed Pesach. Of course, it was delivered via Zoom. 

But when life offers you few choices, when you are “at risk” and vulnerable, religion is an “essential” activity. I am reminded of this every time that we take one of our Adat Shalom Service Missions to Haiti. People who often don’t know where their next meal will come from, who are in make-shift dwellings, who have little to no education and who will die young because health care is well beyond their means, will put on their one, nice (even elegant) set of clothes and spend hours together in song and worship on Sunday morning. Rabbis I work with around the country tell me that they are seeing double the number of people join their Friday night and Shabbat morning worship services on Zoom. People are thirsting for spiritual community at a time that they must “shelter in place” and the possibilities of contracting Covid 19 are making people feel vulnerable and scared. Religion can help us deal with loss and setback, including this pandemic and the impact of restricted movement and physical distancing, even from our loved ones.

This morning, I want to look at the festival of Pesach and the seder(s) that many of us experienced this week in light of the pandemic plague that has affected the entire world.  

Macro message of Pesach

The seder itself is structured so that we first re-enact and fully encounter the hardship of slavery before we celebrate the miracle of redemption. In the first part of the seder, we introduce matzah with the line: “ha lachma anya…” “This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate”. But by the end of the seder, matzah is the bread of redemption; the break of resilience. It is what sustained our ancestors through the desert. But it is the same matzah; the same ingredients! What changed?

What changed was a spiritual transformation in how our ancestors understood their experience. They came to see that within suffering and loss it is possible to find resilience and hope. This is the healing balm of religion.

The theme of Pesach is m’avdut l’cherut, “from slavery to freedom; from oppression to redemption”. This become the signature master story of Jewish history as well, and our people have experienced this arc of redemption time and again throughout the centuries. The framework itself shapes our reality. It keeps us from dwelling on our troubles and sorrows; it forces us to lift up our heads to look at the rainbow on the horizon. Sometimes it even allows us to see a rainbow that is not there.

It should not then be surprising that when the Jewish people reclaimed its homeland in the Land of Israel, the national anthem that was written and adopted was called Hatikvah, “the hope”.

Two examples from the Seder

The seder gives us numerous examples of how ancient words and rituals can be prisms of meaning in light of the circumstances of our current lives. Let me cite just two.

One of the most beloved songs of the seder is the Dayenu. The passage breaks down the Exodus story into about 20 specific elements of the redemption and, after each, we recite, dayenu, “it would have been enough”.  If we got out of Egypt but did not get the Sabbath, dayenu. If we got the Sabbath and not the Torah, dayenu. If we got the Torah and were not able to enter into the Land of Israel, dayenu.

Really? Taken too literally, the prayer undermines essential Rabbinic theology. All the elements of our redemption are part of a package. I think rather, the prayer is better understood as a gratitude prayer in which we say that we appreciate what we get or have. Our natural inclination is to take for granted that which we have or get and to then to feel shortchanged for that which we don’t have. Looking over our shoulders with envy at what others’ have is a most unfortunate habit of the human mind that we need to work hard to overcome. Thus, comes the Dayenu prayer to remind us that abundance is a state of mind. If we are in a perpetual competition with everyone else on the planet over blessings, privileges and possessions, we will invariably, live with a sense of scarcity.

What an apt lesson for a time of pandemic. So much of what we love about life seems off-limits: gatherings with family, friends and community; organized group fitness and sports; travel; movies, concerts and entertainment; eating out at restaurants; a good hug. And yet, should we not “count our blessings?” My brother in law, Rabbi Eliott Perlstein, who serves Ohev Shalom Congregation in Bucks County, PA, joined us for our Second Seder. He shared with us an interpretive Dayenu that he authored for a time of pandemic. It included these lines:

  • If only I can appreciate that meaning in life is not only in “doing” but also in simply “being.”       Dayenu.
  • If only we realize that this virus recognizes no separation by borders, status, religion or race.       Dayenu.     
  • If only we can be inspired by those on the front lines, risking everything and become more giving and dedicated to the welfare of others as a result.     Dayenu           

Elijah Consciousness

The second Seder element that took on rich, new meaning this year was the Cup of Eliyahu HaNavi. In the Jewish tradition, Elijah the Prophet will be the forerunner of the messianic era. That is the reason that we invoke Eliyahu HaNavi during the Havdalah service that ends shabbat. We are taught that a well-observed shabbat provides us with a taste of what the messianic era will be like.

The ritual that accompanies Elijah’s Cup at the seder is to open the door for him. As a child, this was always my job. At ages 5, 6 and 7, I was thrilled to be the center of attention, for anything. But as I aged to the ripe “old age” of 10 and beyond, my cynicism took over. If Elijah is going to bring the Messiah, why does he need us to open the door for him? When lucky, maturity follows “eldering”. As a young adult I regained an appreciation for a ritual that had many layers of meaning. I was most taken by the one, perhaps taught by my father, that the opening of the door reminds us of an earlier passage in the Haggadah when we say, “let all who are hungry, come to our table and share our meal.”

This year, the ritual took on yet another layer of meaning. The messianic era, a better tomorrow, got ritualized by opening a door, suggesting a time, in the not too distant future, when we can exit our homes without fear of contamination or disease. Perhaps, that better tomorrow, a post-Covid “liberated world,” might also be hastened by a new consciousness that emerges during this time of pandemic. A new consciousness that makes us more deeply committed to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor, as we recognize how inequitably the suffering of our current crisis falls on low income people and people of color. A new consciousness that brings greater respect for the health care profession, for science and for expertise, much underfunded and, at times, even dismissed by people in authority. A new consciousness of how we need to dramatically reduce the carbon footprint on our all-too fragile planet.

For years, the practice at our seder table was to ask each person to pour from their cup to fill Elijah’s Cup. We thereby symbolized that a better tomorrow can only be realized if each of us gives something up for the common welfare of humanity. We so desperately need more of this Elijah consciousness today.

A Final Story

This reminds me of the following story. A prosperous and pious Jew in the old country had a dream a few nights before Pesach. Elijah the Prophet himself would be joining a particular family in a remote village, about a two-day journey by carriage. Excited to join Elijah for seder, the man was determined to make the trip. He prepared provisions for the journey as well as for the once in a lifetime seder with Elijah.

The man arrived at the home of his dream about an hour before seder time. The simple house sat solitary in a forest outside the nearest town. As he peered into the window, he saw three young children and their parents. It was clear that the family was poor. The walls were bare and cracked. The clothing worn by the family members were tattered and patched. Even the table, already set for the seder, had simple provisions. Matzah, a few potatoes and some eggs.   
The man started to berate himself for being so foolish and leaving his home and community for the seder. His dream of Eliyahu at this home now seemed preposterous. The man returned to his carriage and started to make his way to the nearest town, where he hoped to find a suitable seder for the festival.
After a few minutes, his mind’s eye filled with the faces of the young children in the house. After all, he thought, he had a full seder meal in the carriage. Doesn’t the Haggadah instruct us to share our meal with the hungry? The man turned his carriage around, parked in front of the house and knocked on the door. The youngest, a 5-year old boy, answered the door: “Tateh, Mameh. I told you. Eliyahu haNavi is here to join us for seder.” And the family enjoyed the most sumptuous seder of their lives!

The story reminds us that it is up to us to take the hardships of this time of pandemic and use it to bring about a better tomorrow for all humanity. The Eliyahu haNavi moment is in our hands.