A Pandemic Passover… AGAIN!

I am an optimist by nature, and we optimists have had an abysmally poor track record from last Passover to now. Last year around this time, my immediate family and I gathered around our seder table and, marveling at the novelty of Zoom, celebrated Passover with dozens of family members from across the country. The pandemic was jarring, but in a few weeks, maybe a month or two, we were certain life would return to normal. My children’s backpacks were still at school because, of course, schools wouldn’t stay closed indefinitely. Libraries, museums, our offices, of course they would be open again. Last Passover, we could not imagine it any other way. Yet here we are, a new Passover, many celebrating over Zoom once again.

This year has taught all of us to be cautious—cautious of the indoors, cautious of the runner sharing the sidewalk, cautious of someone’s masking protocols, even cautious of good news. Miraculous reports on vaccine efficacy have been followed by news on vaccine-resistant variants. You may have qualified to get a vaccine, but spent weeks trying to secure an appointment. This year felt like one long case study in the naysayers being right. We have been trained to be hope-skeptical, and I worry how long this will last. The Passover story begins with skepticism. When Moses delivered God’s message of freedom to his downtrodden brethren, the Torah teaches that they could not even listen, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage. After centuries of oppression and repeated hope-dashing blows, they had become a nation of skeptics, unable to even imagine what the next chapter could be. But the Passover story is, in the end, a story about how a people who lost hope learned to find it again.

The Jewish story is unique in that it is bookended by hope. The Torah’s creation account tells the story of chaos ordered into a beautiful universe. Life begins with the Garden of Eden, and looking toward the Jewish end of days, our tradition describes a return to the Garden once again. To live as a Jew is to know, deep down, that the world begins and ends with wholeness and peace.

What audacity! Remember, this was all first written in the Bronze Age. At the same time, when long life meant fighting wars and surviving famine, when average life expectancy was all of 26 years, we had the chutzpah to affirm that the beginning and end of time is nothing short of the Garden of Eden. Contrast our creation story to its unspeakably violent and nihilistic counterparts from the Babylonians, Greeks, or Romans, and we Jews are outliers in hope.

The Jewish story begins and ends with redemption, but what about now, this difficult time in between? This is a pandemic question, and a Jewish question too. And our people’s answer, now and always, is the Passover seder.

Historically, our sages created the Passover seder after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. When we think about our redemption holiday in context, this means that nearly every Passover seder in the history of seders was celebrated in diaspora. We reclined, ate, drank, and sang “Next year in Jerusalem!” while facing hardship nearly impossible for us to imagine today. The Passover seder is a ritual. To ritualize is to do what we don’t always feel, and in our annual retelling of the Exodus story, we ritualize hope.

From last Passover to now, life has trained us to hope less, but the celebration of Passover reminds us to hope more. For some of us, this year has been inconvenient, and for others, a waking nightmare. But as we gather around our seder tables this year, whether by Zoom or, vaccine-permitting, in person, we affirm that we can still hope. Hope is not conditional. For Jews, hope is the beginning and end of time itself.

For now, I pray that you all get vaccinated. I pray that these miraculous injections continue to work. I pray that you can walk outside again without fear. I pray that you can again hug your children and grandchildren. I pray that they can return to school. I pray to be able to see you again, in person, inside our sacred space. I pray that we can hope again, without caution, without caveats, without the shadow of  pandemic could leave in its wake. I pray, at this Passover seder, that we raise a glass and say “Next year in Jerusalem!” because to be a Jew means that time begins, ends, and against all odds, is filled in between with hope.