A Note from Rabbi Harlan J. Wechsler
When I read Rabbi Bolton’s letter that told the Congregation of his and his wife’s illness, I asked him if there were anything I might do to lighten his burden. He suggested that I write a pre-Pesah message. I send this to you with our wish first for the speedy and complete recovery of both Rabbis Bolton and our prayer, as well, for the healing of all those suffering from the terrible pandemic. We are effectively quarantined in Jerusalem and will be this way for some time. The seder will be different this year. This is a bizarre and surreal moment that we share with each other. Here is what is on my mind.
There are times when a person must shift gears and re-focus his or her vision. This is one of them, though we should remember that extraordinary circumstances occur from time to time.
Think back to the first Pesah, for example. Our people had been enslaved for hundreds of years, and they had to begin to think like free people. How do you get them to shift gears? The first thing the Jews were told to do is to take a lamb, to slaughter it, to smear its blood on the doorposts and lintels of their homes and then to roast the lamb.
Hizkuni, a 13th century French commentator, emphasizes the choice of the lamb. That was a totem animal of the Egyptians; they worshipped lambs. It certainly would have been more politically correct to use another animal, or no animal at all. God didn’t really need to know where the Jews lived.
The lamb was chosen, says Hizkuni, for the sake of the Jews. They needed to feel they were committing an act of disobedience in order for them to begin to change. They had always listened to commands. Now they had to learn NOT to listen. The change, you see, was psychological. For them to cope with reality in those circumstances, they needed to build their own courage and their own sense of self. They needed to develop courage the hard way. And Hizkuni says that is why they had to roast the lamb and not boil it in water. The smell of roasting meat would be obvious to all the Egyptians and that, again, would force the Jews to confront the new reality and the changed status that was soon to be theirs.
It was an extraordinary time and they had to be ready for it.
Last week, Natan Sharansky discussed exactly this issue. On behalf of the Jewish Agency, he made a short video which he called “5 Tips” for dealing with corona virus.
Remember, when Sharansky was 29 years old, he was arrested by the Soviet authorities for his Zionist activities. He spent nine years in prison and for half that time he was in solitary confinement. During that confinement, he spent 405 days in the punishment cell. He made this recent video because we have to deal with being at home, sometimes with being alone at home, even at the seder, and, he said, he knows something about that.
First, he had to remind himself that he was part of a huge global battle. You also should remind yourself that we are at war with a very dangerous, though invisible, enemy. And whether we succeed in battle depends partly on the behavior of each person. We each have a role to play in this battle which, at the same time, is everyone’s battle.
Second, in prison, he didn’t know when he would be released. In Sharansky’s case, he didn’t know whether he would ever be released. That’s not our problem. We will be released from this, but we don’t know when. Don’t build your future plans, says Sharansky, on the hope that in the next few days or in the next few weeks it will all be finished. It doesn’t not depend only on you. So try to build plans which fully depend on you. You can decide that finally, in the next three days, you can read the book you wanted to read. In the next few days you can decide to make yourself a seder that fits you like no seder ever before. Then it all depends on you.
Three. Never give up on your sense of humor. Sharansky jokes, for example, that the Ministry of Health has informed all Israelis that weddings are cancelled, but the Ministry goes on to say that those couples who are married don’t have to cancel their marriages. He then lets out a huge laugh. The other night, when we heard Prime Minister Netanyahu give Israelis new directives for the seder night, permitting only family members who regularly live together to be together at the seder, he, with a smile, referred to the evening as Leyl HaSeger, instead of Leyl HaSeder—confinement night instead of seder night—a Hebrew joke that made us all smile at the very moment we were getting news that was terrible: that we would be alone for the seder.
Remember to smile and to laugh!
Sharansky’s fourth tip is to remember your hobbies. He talks about the joy he had playing chess in his head when he was in solitary confinement. You have things that bring you pleasure. Do them now when you need to have moments of pleasure. Even thinking about them, as Sharansky thought about chess, can lift your spirits.
And last, Sharansky says: Feel your connection. Remember that you’re not alone. For thousands of years, we Jews were scattered all over the world. But we always had this feeling that we were a part of a great people, with our mutual past, our mutual future, and our mutual mission. And we are part of a great synagogue community. Think about it. Feel your connection.
This is Pesah. We are part of a tradition that recalls coming out of Egypt and we shall do it, under hardship this year, but we are going to do it again. We have been through many Egypts and we have always tasted liberation.
Remember that part of our job is to working on ourselves. Don’t expect Pesah to come as a gift. Our ancestors had to change themselves. Sharansky had to work on himself. And remember that Pesah is something that is bigger than each of us. By being at a seder, by making a seder, we attach ourselves to history and to meaning, to an event that has kept us together and inspired not only Jews but all people who seek redemption. It is about to happen again.
When it comes to the seder, don’t take it lightly. Naomi and I are going to be alone this year, without our children and grandchildren. It’s an awful thought. But we shall overcome. We must have a great seder, our children must have a great seder. If you don’t know exactly what to do, make sure you have a Haggadah and read it, in English or in Hebrew, and do what you can. This is not a Model seder, this is the real thing and the rabbi isn’t in charge, the family member who knows the tradition isn’t in charge. YOU are in charge.
Make sure you get dressed up, even if you’re by yourself. Set your most beautiful table. This is difficult, there is no doubt about it. It was difficult for Sharansky in his years of confinement. It was difficult in Egypt with those Egyptians all around. It is difficult for us. But we can do it!
I’m telling you this: If you are ill with this terrible virus, you know what you have to do: what the doctor orders and hopefully, with God’s help and with patience, this will be but a bad memory. But for those of us who are living with just, and I say JUST with all due deference to the real problems that we might face, with just the quarantine and its boredom, its loneliness and the difficulty of getting food and taking care of our basic needs, be strong. Courage and hope are the call of the hour.
Refuah shlemah to all our ill. Together we will overcome. Because Am Yisrael chai. The Jewish People lives! And this will be a Pesah we shall never forget.
Hag kasher v’sameah, a very joyful, kosher and sweet Passover!
Blessings from Jerusalem,
Rabbi Harlan J. Wechsler