Passover begins Wednesday evening and I can’t imagine why this didn’t occur to me earlier. There are a couple of startling points of contact between the Jewish holiday and the current pandemic.
Passover, also known as Pesach, reaches back to the time of Moses, when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt.
Traditionally, on the first night of Passover, Jews around the world gather around the dinner table for a seder, which means “order,” because there is a specific order of tasks that must happen during a long meal punctuated by prayers and rituals.
What must be done is written in a booklet called the Haggadah that is read during the service, usually by an elder.
The Haggadah tells the story of the redemption of the Jewish people and the Exodus from 400 years of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the land of Israel.
Slavery did not end easily.
Moses was raised as a prince of Egypt after being found by Pharaoh’s daughter in an ark in a river. His mother had floated him away to escape Pharaoh’s decree to kill all male Jewish newborns. After learning that he was actually Jewish, Moses empathized with the Jewish slaves.
He asked Pharaoh to “let my people go.” Pharaoh being all-powerful and arrogant, refused, even after Moses showed him a few magic tricks. You know, the staff turning into a serpent, like in the movie.
To help soften Pharaoh’s hard heart, Moses warns that God will visit plagues on Egypt and its people. Pharaoh snorts that he has gods, too. Lots of them.
During the seder, the plagues are recounted — frogs, boils, hail, locusts, flies, darkness — and the final, the most terrible, the slaying of the first born.
On the night God’s wrath was to come, the story goes, Jews were warned to stay at home — the old, original shelter in place — after dabbing lamb’s blood on their doorways, so that the invisible death will “pass over” their homes.
You might think of COVID-19 as a plague, but one that does not seek only the first-born. It does not discriminate.
The Israelites only had to stay in for one night. We must stay inside for weeks or months to avoid the plague.
There is a lot to eat and drink during the seder. Included among the rituals is repeated hand washing. Sound familiar? (Purell is optional.)
That is a similarity, but one required ritual will not happen. The seder leader is required to welcome strangers at the door: “Let all who are hungry enter and eat.” This year it is too dangerous to admit people we do not know. We can’t even invite our whole family. Maybe none of them. Under social distance rules, only the prophet Elijah, who visits every Jewish home, can enter.
The rules are new, and sad, and frightening.
Caution is required. If we are observant and careful, we will survive, too, and emerge as unified as the Israelites.