The Power of Passover During a Plague
Most Jews in history have not been free, whether from murderous regimes, famines or pandemics like this one. What we have been is devoted to the idea that we deserve to be.
By Alana Newhouse
Ms. Newhouse is the editor in chief of Tablet Magazine, which just published “The Passover Haggadah: An Ancient Story for Modern Times.”
March 30, 2020
A passover seder in Germany, circa 1945. Jews observed Passover throughout dire circumstances in history. During the Holocaust, they observed in ghettos, concentration camps and forests.Credit…Walter Sanders/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images
This year, Passover falls at the beginning of April — smack in the middle of what some experts estimate will be the peak of the coronavirus pandemic in America. It’s not just the timing of the holiday — built around a retelling of the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt — that feels off. It’s that every aspect of its story and rituals now seems almost cruelly ironic.
The Passover Seder centers on the experience of being thrust out of our homes, but these days we feel trapped inside of them. The story involves miraculous plagues that saved us; today we pray for the end of one. There’s the commandment to clean our homes of all non-Passover food, which we just spent innumerable hours and dollars hoarding.
Then there’s the real heartbreaker: The Seder is when we traditionally gather with family, friends and even strangers. “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” we say. These days, many of us can’t even be in the same house as our own parents or children. We don’t come within six feet of strangers.
And yet, there will still be Passover. Indeed, I’ve come to think of Passover as the stem cell of the Jewish people, a reserve of core source material with the proven ability to generate new meaning and solace in circumstances even more extreme than what we are living through now.
Perhaps you’re disappointed because you can’t celebrate the way we’re used to. But do you also remember matzo, the unleavened cracker we eat because Jews rushed out of their homes before their bread could rise? The entire holiday is rooted in glorifying a moment when life unfolded in very unexpected ways — and human beings found meaning, even liberation, in it.
The Bible includes various relevant mentions of Passover: One, in Exodus, of the Feast of the Passover, and several others (in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy) of the Feast of the Unleavened Bread. Historians believe these were originally maintained by two distinct segments of Israelite society, for whom spring meant slightly different things. For the seminomadic part of the community, it was a signal that it was time to start moving again; but before doing so they would sacrifice a lamb to ward off evil spirits that might block their path. For the settled folks, it was an agricultural holiday, a joyful welcoming of the incoming spring harvest.
Most scholars believe the two holidays were eventually combined in 622 B.C.E. — when, on the orders of Josiah, the king of Judah, a national celebration emerged, which had at its heart a pilgrimage to the Temple and the killing of a Pascal lamb. Intended or not, the process looks poetic in hindsight: Elements were taken from each of the previous commemorations — the sacrifice from the former, the joy from the latter — and a Jewish future was made.
It didn’t last. Or rather, the Temple didn’t, but Passover certainly did. After Jerusalem was sacked in 586 B.C.E., the Jews were forced out of Judea into what became known as the Babylonian Exile, taking with them this powerful reminder that a people who had been brought out of exile to freedom might once again retrace that journey.
More than 2,500 years later, the Passover Seder has not simply survived. It is now, by a long shot, the most popular Jewish religious observance. And what it is, essentially, is an agglomeration of a long and global inheritance. The basic order of the evening stretches back to the third or fourth century; we end the night with a set of group songs from the 15th century; some of us whip one another with scallions during the song “Dayenu,” a tradition designed by Persian Jews; and we all make different kinds of charoset, the sweet paste meant to signify the mortar used by the Jewish slaves. Italian Jews use eggs. Gibraltan Jews make theirs with the dust of ground bricks. And African-American Jews incorporate sugar cane, and cocoa powder, the crops of American slavery.
Source: The New York Times