One of the most important moments of the Jewish tradition is the ritual supper that every family must observe on the night of the first day of Passover, and repeated on the second night in the Diaspora. During the meal, parents must teach their children about the idea of freedom as it is presented in the Torah.
A study of the biblical text reveals that being free is not merely the condition of not serving any master or not being a slave to some monarch; rather a person is fully free when one serves God alone by rejecting every kind of paganism. This idea is summarized in Leviticus 25:55, where we read: "For the Children of Israel are servants to Me, they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God." The relationship between belief in God described in the Torah and the reality of pagan slavery is so intimate that in the first of the ten commandments in both its versions (Exodus 20:2 and Deuteronomy 5:6), God addresses the Benei Israel, reminding them Who it was that brought them out of the house of slavery and that, therefore, they must give no heed to any other purported deities. Freedom, ultimately, is to be free from all idolatry. Pharaoh was considered a deity in Egypt; the plagues were divine signs to demonstrate to the oppressors the futility of their gods, as the verse says: "And I will judge all the deities of Egypt" (Exodus 12:12).
As we sit around the Seder table on this Passover, the plague of the coronavirus that afflicts humanity will surely form the backdrop for the questions that we must teach our children to ask. What moral lesson should humanity learn from this tragedy? What are the idols that should collapse as a result of this scourge?
On the one hand, the pandemic has challenged contemporary notions of humanity’s confidence in scientific knowledge to predict and regulate global life. It’s not that the value of science and knowledge for humanity is diminished. They continue to testify to the greatness of humanity’s capabilities. But in many ways, our era has been characterized by the belief that humanity has achieved mastery over almost all things. This sudden pandemic refutes such an attitude. The lack of care of the planet, the abuse of nature for profit, the creation of non-degradable waste can all lead to devastation of mammoth proportions. The excessive appetites of the strong and of leaders for more and more power and wealth threatens to produce conditions for new Holocausts.
This pandemic clearly reveals that societies, in general, do not invest enough in health care systems. Health, for many people on the planet, is a luxury for the few, when it ought to be a right for everyone. Instead, there must be more investment in medical care and research in order to provides us with the information to face such problems as the COVID-19 virus.
Moreover, everything seems to be measured only by the accumulation of wealth. Athletic competitions and entertainment shows, recalling the ancient Roman “bread and circuses”, are prioritized, manipulating the masses as if they were mindless. The idea of superhumans dominating the world, which Nazism so explicitly presented, is still present, perhaps clothed in different garb, but remaining equally poisonous. On the other hand, this disease does not respect social classes, ethnicity, age, religion, or national boundaries. It pierces all the barriers that human beings have built against each other. It has exposed the futility of petty rivalries and factionalism. From one day to the next, humanity has been united in the global necessity to combat this horror. It will be overcome most quickly if all peoples of the world cooperate and assist each other.
Since ancient times, the Passover seder has served as the occasion to examine the situation of the present in the light of biblical values and history. For example, a famous paragraph of the Haggadah tells of the meeting in Roman times of the most important sages of Israel in the house of Rabbi Akiva in Benei Berak. Their conversation lasted all night until dawn. This anecdote reflects the truth that there are so many aspects to consider about the Passover story that even an entire night is insufficient. Given the time period, we might suppose that a main topic of their discussion was whether to back the uprising against the Romans about to be led by Shimon bar Kochva (Simon bar Kochba) in 132 CE.
Jumping ahead two millennia, on April 19, 1943, Nisan 14, 5703, the eve of Passover, the first fight occurred between Nazi troops and Jewish fighters in the Warsaw ghetto. Seder celebrants in the ghetto listened to the explosions and the hissing of bullets during one of the most heroic moments during World War II and in the history of the Jewish people.
Five years later, under the explosions of gunfire and the thunder of bombs, the seder was celebrated in Jerusalem. The Jewish people in Israel were desperately preparing to fight to have their own place in the world, in their ancestral land.
These moments from the past remind us that Passover is not a time of utter joy. And also that we must mourn the pain of other people as well as that of the children of Israel. When the plagues suffered by the Egyptians are recited, a drop must be removed from the wine glass – a drink that gladdens human hearts (Psalm 104: 15) – in memory of Egyptian pain and affliction.
This Passover will be overshadowed by the presence of the corona virus. But the essence of Passover is the concept of redemption. Human intellectual capacity will surely find the appropriate response to this disease, and then the challenge that has faced humanity ever since Eden will again come to the forefront: to overcome arrogance and the thirst for power so as to find the path of redemption symbolized by each of the elements in the Seder celebration.