This Passover, we won’t be attending synagogue, we won’t be participating in large raucous dinners and sharing our food with our extended family and friends, we won’t be welcoming strangers into our homes, as Jewish people are instructed to do, writes Juliet Moses.
Tonight, on what is hopefully the halfway point of our lockdown period, Jewish people in New Zealand will sit down at their Seder dinner tables and mark the start of the festival of Passover. As we do every year, we will ask “why is this night different from all other nights?” and recite the reasons.
Many of us will also be thinking about why this Passover is different from all other Passovers. This Passover, we won’t be attending synagogue, we won’t be participating in large raucous dinners and sharing our food with our extended family and friends, we won’t be welcoming strangers into our homes, as we are commanded to do; we will be sheltering in our homes, with the people we are self-isolating with. It’s just one of many sacrifices, of varying degrees of magnitude, we must all make at this time.
On Passover we recall the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt, the Pharaoh finally freeing them after the infliction of ten plagues upon his people. The last plague that finally forced the Pharaoh to free the Israelites was the killing of firstborn sons. So that the angel of death would know to “pass over” Israelites’ homes, they were called upon to sacrifice a lamb and daub its blood on their doorposts.
Jews, like Māori, are a people of memory and story-telling, and Passover is the holiday of remembrance, the day we are called upon to share our collective memory and tell the story of our exodus and redemption: “And when, in the distant future, your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him ‘it was with a mighty hand that God brought us out of Egypt’.”
For many people the Passover story is just a myth, but even then, its narrative of emancipation from slavery and journey towards the Promised Land can be rich with resonance, and it has provided inspiration for many people, perhaps most famously Martin Luther King Jr. The last speech he delivered (52 years ago last week) is known as “I’ve been to the Mountaintop”, a prescient reference to Moses dying standing on Mt Nebo, within sight of the Promised Land.
Right now, of course, there is a pandemic plaguing the world, which we are all trying to prevent from entering the sanctuary of our homes. The pace and degree of change means that time has sped up even as it has slowed down and stretches before us into the unknown. I remember the panic and anxiety in the pit of my stomach for the days before we knew we were going into lockdown, the sensation that we were living in a dystopian novel, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. And when I said goodbye to my older son, who is spending the lockdown elsewhere, I remember the overwhelming sadness, as I sobbed on his shoulder and clung onto him. At that moment, it felt to me like the world might end.
But once I shut the door on the outside world, the panic gradually subsided and was replaced with a kind of finely balanced equilibrium. I regained a sense of control, accepting that there were things I couldn’t control, and to worry about only the things that I could. I focussed on the day at hand, and the tasks ahead, rather than the existential questions and doomsday scenarios and what ifs? I stopped reading every article, I took time away from social media. I looked for positivity and humour, and I reminded myself how much worse things could be. My older son said to me “it’s not like we are being sent away to war, all we have to do is stay home”.
I notice that the days have taken on their own rhythm. A slightly later wake-up, a leisurely coffee and breakfast over the news, a 10 second commute to my office downstairs, a morning Zoom call with the team, work, greeting my younger son when he emerges from sleep around 11 and having a quick chat, a break for lunch at 1pm to watch Dr Bloomfield’s update, more work, logging off hopefully in time to watch the 6pm news, some exercise at some point, cooking dinner and eating it with my son, a board game with him, and then watching the episode of whatever latest Netflix series I’m watching (right now Babylon Berlin, then Ozark, Fauda, Unorthodox…it’s all lined up), reading, sleep. And of course all this interspersed with calls and messages and the latest round of memes with family and friends, ensuring we are all doing OK.
I’ve stopped rushing, to work, meetings, kids’ sports, appointments, the gym, dinner with friends, always watching the clock and running late. I’m reading more, sleeping better. I’m video-conferencing with family across the country and the world, and over 100 members of my community before our Sabbath comes in on a Friday night. There is solace in the solidarity.
And there is serenity in the simplicity. I’ve discovered some kind of an inner peace, as the perpetual motion and panic of my pre-pandemic life has stilled, and a pared-back life has taken over. The most I laughed during this whole period – a real belly laugh – has been playing monopoly with my son as he paid yet another lot of income tax and shelled out more rent. It’s never too early to learn that lesson.
I know I am privileged to be in this position. I feel safe and comfortable in my home, I have good company, I can continue to work and not worry right now about paying the bills, I have people looking out for me and to look out for, and my loved ones are all well. I also know the disruption of everything we thought we knew and could rely on is massive, and the challenges and uncertainties that lie ahead are daunting. I don’t underestimate the enormity of what we face.
And while I know all this, I can’t help but think about what I don’t miss of my pre-pandemic life, and what I relish about it now. I can’t help but wonder if one day, when I look back on this time, it will be with a certain wistfulness, perhaps even regret that I did not continue with that stillness and simplicity.
The most important message of Passover is projecting ourselves across time, imagining ourselves as part of its story: “In each generation, each person is obligated to see himself as though he or she personally came forth from Egypt.” We are commanded to see the story as our personal redemption.
So this Passover, in the sanctuary of my home with my younger son, we will recall the slavery, the plagues and the freedom. I will contemplate the commonality of the human experience and the dignity of the individual, the sanctity of human life, the compassion for the stranger. I will think about what the Promised Land actually looks like. I will wonder about what, when we finally smite this plague, I will do differently, how I can slow time, and stop taking it for granted. I will make a promise to myself to remember what I learned and to tell my grandchild what it all meant. And I will pray that the angel of death passes swiftly over us all in Aotearoa and beyond.