A Message From Rabbi Berkman: Passover Wisdom and Resources for an Unprecedented Time

Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman

Needless to say, this coming Seder night will certainly be different from all other Seder nights! As we settle into this “new normal” of staying at home and connecting in new virtual ways, the Passover holiday approaches. With all of its traditions handed down through generations – favorite foods, rituals, songs, games – it is surely yet another loss many of us are feeling, not to be able to come together to have our seders with family or friends as we’ve done in the past.

One of the deep lessons of our tradition is that the eternal wisdom of Torah is also evolving wisdom; Jewish practice has always changed depending on where Jews have lived, and historical circumstances. The wisdom that is handed down l’dor vah dor, from generation to generation, is meant to be shaped by our own values and our experiences.

This year, following the imperative to stay home for the good of public health, how might we bring new insight and understanding to our observance of Passover? What new wisdom can we create out of this unprecedented experience of physical distancing (or, as one colleague called it, sacred distancing – as staying home and not interacting with other households is a sacred act of pikuach nefesh – saving lives)?

We read in the Haggadah each year: “In each and every generation one is obligated to see themselves as if they went out from Egypt.” The communal act of remembering the Exodus is supposed to be intimate, personal, visceral. Why are we commanded to see ourselves as we were slaves, as if we were liberated? Because that memory of being vulnerable, afraid, relieved, and grateful leads us to be empathetic and compassionate toward the suffering of others, and to work for freedom for all. As Emma Lazarus famously wrote: Until we are all free, none of us are free. We know this in our very bones. And this year, unlike any year in most of our lifetimes, we celebrate the feast of our freedom when we feel vulnerable, afraid, constrained.

At this surreal moment in our communal lives, we are experiencing how interdependent our freedoms are. When I limit my own freedom – for example, staying at home and with members of my own household only – I am enabling the freedom of doctors and nurses to have less risk to their lives each day and night they go to work to save patients with Covid-19.

As we celebrate our freedom during Passover, we will recognize more than ever our obligation to protect the freedom of others; enacting our obligation to the public good, reflecting our deepest responsibility to the entire human family, we will feel the experience of Mitzrayim (Egypt, and literally: the narrow place) in a deep and personal way, with so many constraints on our ability to celebrate in the ways we are used to. I hope that out of these new limitations, new possibilities for compassion and connection will be born.

Many of us have already experienced new avenues for Jewish living and learning through our online offerings as well as those of other Jewish organizations and institutions. I have been amazed at the array of opportunities for Jewish engagement that have risen up so quickly and so richly. Through Zoom services and classes and gatherings, live-streaming of services, preschool story times, and more, we have been able to deepen our connections to one another at a time when we are physically distanced. However, we recognize that these virtual offerings are not accessible to everyone. We want to ensure that those who are not online are still feeling cared for, and I am filled with gratitude for the many volunteers who have been calling members of our community to check in and offer support. Rabbi Schaefer and I are happy to speak by phone with anyone who would like that support.

“Let all who are hungry come and eat.” At the core of our seder is the imperative to open our homes, our hearts, our tables to all who are hungry (for physical nourishment but also spiritual nourishment through human connection). This year, we cannot do that in person. Below are some resources to help you in doing this using new and creative rituals and platforms, as well as some resources for reflection and study.* May we use our individual and collective wisdom and passion this year to nourish and nurture the hungry in ways that will make us all truly free. This year, we are bound to stay at home and be distant from our loved ones; next year, may we be free, perhaps even more free than we ever were, for having learned to find the limitless in our limitations.

*Caveat: is also okay to do things simply and not to delve into the vast sea of resources available to us right now. We are all enduring a traumatic time with our lives upended, and we need not feel pressure to be exceptionally creative or resourceful right now. Getting through each day tending to the basics of physical, mental, and spiritual well-being for ourselves and our loved ones, while fulfilling commitments to work and to family and while feeling worried about the pandemic, is already a tremendous amount of work. I urge you to honor that, both on holidays and on regular days! Please be gentle with yourselves.

A Zissn Pesach/Chag Pesach Sameach –

May your Passover holiday have moments of sweetness, wholeness, and joy.

Rabbi Berkman

Resources for Seders and Study!


Learning resources: