Pesach – Jewish response to COVID-19, 15 April 2020
On Wednesday night, the Jewish festival of Passover began. We recall the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and their liberation from slavery, after Egypt was afflicted with 10 plagues. So began the journey back towards Israel, the Promised Land, when the children of Israel were reborn and gained self-mastery.
As we recount this story we are commanded to see ourselves as part of it – as if we ourselves had suffered as slaves and were freed – and to tell it to the next generation.
Usually, on the first night of Passover we tell the story at large dinners with friends and family, with our tables laden with ritual foods. Instead this year, in lockdown, many of us participated in Zoom calls with the people with whom we would normally be sharing our food.
The 3500-year-old Passover narrative, with its universal theme of redemption through overcoming hardship, has inspired people of all faiths and none for millennia. Many of today’s Jews will have celebrated previous Passovers remembering how past generations were tested and the suffering they endured in a variety of ways, while appreciating how we ourselves have been spared. But this year Passover carries particular resonance and the parallels will have escaped no one, as the world is afflicted with the plague of a pandemic and all peoples hope or pray for liberation from it.
These uncertain times may have challenged the faith of some, but for many their faith – and their belonging to a faith community – has brought solace and support.
In the Jewish community, during lockdown we have participated in Zoom calls on Friday nights right before our Sabbath starts, singing our traditional songs and hearing words of wisdom from our rabbis and community leaders. In many cases, these virtual services have had more participants than a normal service would.
But the solace and support has not just been spiritual. A new organisation has been launched for the New Zealand Jewish community, to co-ordinate assistance and volunteers, whether for food deliveries, medical needs, counselling, or something else.
Passover is a time for Jewish people to remember that we are part of a much larger, longer story, to share in a collective narrative and to feel connected to the community. But this world crisis shows us that one does not have to be Jewish or belong to a faith to have these experiences, and that we are all united by a common humanity and a yearning for renewal.