By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Pesach is the season of our liberation, the story at the core of our peoplehood. We were caught in the crushing straits of The Narrow Place (Mitzrayim) and God freed us with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. We went forth from slavery into freedom with a mixed multitude, a perennial reminder that liberation is not for us alone but for everyone.
Pesach is my favorite story and my favorite holiday, and I'm not alone in that. Studies have shown that Pesach is the holiday most-celebrated by American Jews. Across and beyond the denominations, across and beyond the spiritual spectrum, the Passover Seder is the practice we collectively hold most dear. We gather with our loved ones, retell our central story, sing and laugh, and feast.
Well – that's what we used to do. Last year wasn't like that, thanks to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year won't be like that, either. We're not yet out of the narrow straits of global pandemic. Once again we'll celebrate Pesach on Zoom, from home.
What does it mean to approach the season of our liberation when many of us are feeling that we are stuck in the narrow straits of a global pandemic causing unthinkable amounts of death and suffering – as well as political tensions, heightened awareness of racism (for white folks like me; people of color were already quite aware), mistrust and misinformation?
I don't have an easy answer. But I know we're not the first generation to experience Pesach during a time of unrest, or suffering, or pandemic, or fear. So I turned to one of my textual teachers for insight.
The rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto, R. Kalman Kalonymus Shapira (also known as the “Aish Kodesh” and as the “Piaceczyner”) lived in a time of tremendous constriction and privation. Shortly before the Jews of Warsaw were rounded up and taken away, he buried his Torah teachings in a milk can. They were found by a construction worker after the war, and subsequently published.
The Piaceczyner taught that God is like a human being who cries out to a friend, "help me carry this burden?" The burden that God wants help in carrying is our human suffering, which God feels-with-us. Even God takes comfort, when bearing a burden, in not having to carry it alone. (Aish Kodesh on Vayikra, 1940) Even when we are apart physically, we can reach out to one another. When we connect – even via phone or text or Zoom – we lighten one another's burdens.
R. Shapira also taught that sometimes, our greatest spiritual practice is waiting. Waiting helps us cultivate faith that good things will come. Even in a difficult time, he writes, “when there is no school for our children, no synagogue in which to pray in community with a minyan, no mikvah (ritual bath)” – even in a time like that (a time like this!), we can cultivate trust that God can help us turn even the most difficult of circumstances into blessings. (Aish Kodesh on M'tzora, 1940)
We never know, when something difficult is happening, what blessing we might be able to find in it later when we look back on it. My reading of the Piaceczyner tells me that we have two tasks in this time: to reach out to each other and help each other carry the burdens of this time, and to cultivate trust that better days are coming. Spring is coming. Fresh air is coming. Sunlight is coming. Vaccinations are coming. The mixed multitude of the whole world will emerge from these narrow straits, and we will rejoice with song and dancing on the other side of this sea.
May the Pesach season help us cultivate hope for the better days that are coming -- and may we support each other from afar in all the ways we can, until the day comes when we can embrace in person again.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, and founding builder of Bayit: Building Jewish (yourbayit.org).