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Passover: The stubborn people vs a stubborn virus

Dayenu.

This week, we will sit at our Seder and praise God for everything he did for our people during our exodus from Egypt. And after each and every act of divine intervention that we list, we will sing dayenu. We were undeserved, and so every chapter of our redemption would have been dayenu, enough.

This year, our declaration of dayenu is imbued with a different – and somber – meaning: Enough of the suffering that has engulfed our beautiful world. Dayenu.

The plague of the coronavirus has been indiscriminate: Every man, woman and child, in every country, of every religion, is a potential target of this calamitous pandemic.

We have already seen – in this publication and others – blame being assigned for its community spread:

The “ultra-Orthodox” and the “religious” are to be blamed because the synagogue was ground zero of societal contamination. Rabbis were condemned for allowing minyanim to take place. Great Torah scholars were denounced for allowing Torah learning to continue in the beit midrash (study hall).

I fully understand the issue being argued. We have a government. We have rules and laws and restrictions. And the rules must be followed in order to physically stop the coronavirus from spreading. And that is 100% correct.

However, that is the physical battle that must be waged against the coronavirus. Not understood by those who have condemned the religious community is the spiritual battle that is being fought. Perhaps with some perspective, we can seek to at least understand the motivations of our spiritual leaders, instead of propagating hatred about them and their followers.

The Jewish people are no stranger to tragedy or to mageifa – epidemic. Lag Baomer, for example, is a holiday on which we commemorate the cessation of a disease which killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students. The cause of the tragedy, say the rabbis, was the failure of the students to treat one another with respect.

Think about that. To put the tragedy of Rabbi Akiva’s students in perspective, as of this writing, 48,579 people have died from coronavirus, all over the entire world.

The Jewish religious response has always been to interpret these events as a Divine prodding to push the Jewish people to introspect and repent. To grow.

The corona crisis has left the Jewish people bereft of most of its core values: family, community, education and prayer. Our homes are closed to others. Our synagogues are closed to all. Our schools are closed to our children. Absent at our Seders this year will be the critical intergenerational transfer of knowledge and wisdom that are supplied by our elderly and helps define us as a people.

More than any other Jewish ritual, the Seder exemplifies the Jewish experience. Mesorah, the transmission of our values, heritage and knowledge from one generation to another, is the foundation on which the Jewish people have survived. And this year, this Seder night will be very different than all other Seder Nights. Ma nishtana halayla hazeh?

How do the religious respond to this crisis?

We obstinately cling to our timeless formula of survival.

We pray. We try to turn to God with the power of a minyan (prayer quorum) and beseech him for mercy. Our supplications are in the plural, because in the masses the Shechina (the Divine presence) resides – and because we pray for all mankind. Unfortunately, we are currently obliged to pray alone – but nevertheless have in mind the suffering of all.

We learn Torah. With (now online) chavrutas (learning partners), we immerse ourselves in Torah, Halacha (Jewish Law), and mussar (spiritual development). We seek to refine our characters and to reflect the Holy Nation that God intends us to be. Our goal is to endow the physical world with more spirituality – weighing what is truly important in life with what is fleeting – while dedicating ourselves to becoming better human beings through commitment to Torah.

We give charity. More than any other mitzvah, charity exemplifies the Jewish spirit and Jewish values. We rededicate ourselves to caring for each other and for improving the human condition through our behavior and our deeds.

We are an am kshei oref – a stiff-necked people. It is our unwavering commitment to these timeless sources of spiritual nourishment which has sustained our existence since time immemorial. It is what inspired the Conversos forced to convert during the Inquisition to cling to our God clandestinely; it is what drove our refuseniks to defy the heavy hand of an Iron Curtain; and it is what moved many of our survivors to yearn for observance amidst the Camps in our Holocaust.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves,” said Victor Frankl. Why not use this corona crisis to try to change ourselves as a people?

Instead of blaming others for our plight, let us appreciate what each of us can offer in the great battle against an invisible enemy.

We need to understand that when the religious strove to stubbornly pray in a minyan, it is not because we, God forbid,wanted to infect others. It is because we believe that prayer is a remedy in a time of crisis – and will benefit each and every one of us when we unite in one voice to our Father in heaven.

When THE religious community wanted to stubbornly learn Torah in a beit midrash, their motivation was to reinforce the mesorah of knowledge – values and the pursuit of personal perfection that makes living life more meaningful.

And yet, we first need to fully abide by the laws of the country in which we reside and put the physical life of each and every citizen of God’s world first. But all should understand our wanting to retain as much of the oxygen of the spirit as we possibly can, because the spiritual battle must also be waged.

Torah Judaism is intimidating to many. That is a tragedy because most people do not understand it. But stubborn commitment to prayer, to Torah, to charity and to repentance has given us the strength throughout our history to fortify the foundation on which we have survived unimaginable terror and persecution.

My mother’s aunts were survivors of Bergen-Belsen. After their death, my mother found a handwritten prayer that the inmates recited every year on Passover (translation below):

“Before eating chametz [on Passover] say this:
God in heaven, it is known before you that we want to fulfill your desire and celebrate Passover by eating matzah and keeping the mitzvah to refrain from eating chametz [leaven]. Despite this, to our great pain, this great enslavement [Holocaust] is preventing us from fulfilling your mitzvah and we find ourselves in a life threatening situation. We are ready and prepared to fulfill your commandment that we should ‘live’ by the mitzvot and not die by them, and to be careful to care for our physical selves. Therefore, we beseech you through our prayer that we should live (shehecheyanu) and persevere (vekeeymanu), and be redeemed quickly, so that we can keep your mitzvot and to fulfill your every wish with a whole heart. Amen.”

Being stubborn is a Jewish character trait; we are a stiff-necked people. But it is also what makes us special as a nation. In this turbulent time, we can find inspiration in our religion, in our Torah, in our prayers, in our charity, in our repentance, and most of all, in our merciful God.

This year’s seder WILL be different than all other years because this year we have the opportunity to bask in God’s presence in a far more intimate way. We should grasp this opportunity and make the most of it.

“Live as if you were living a second time, and as though you had acted wrongly the first time,” said Victor Frankl.

May this tragic, contagious virus be the impetus for our rebirth as a better people.

And for that we will declare anew: Dayenu.

Header: In the wake of the coronavirus, COGAT officers and soldiers deliver essentials to the needy and disabled in Jerusalem for Passover (photo credit: COGAT SPOKESPERSON’S OFFICE)

Original: Markus Yigal for JPost