Ha lachma anya – this is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Mitzrayim (Egypt).
So begins our Passover story.
And that is – in fact – our defining story.
For when we sit down at our seder tables – perhaps alone, perhaps with just our immediate family, perhaps with friends or community, perhaps still with a computer or phone screen in front of us as we zoom seder with others – we tell the story how our spiritual ancestors were enslaved and God freed them with miracles, with an outstretched arm reaching down to us, waiting for us to reach up to God.
But it is not supposed to be just a story we tell. In my mind, the central passage in the entire Haggadah is “In every generation, we should see ourselves as having left Mitzrayim.” In other words, to really understand, to really feel our defining story, we have to live it.
Well, for the past two years we have.
For the last two years, we have been weighed down by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Two years ago March, we did not know what was in store for us. It was, as I imagine, like that verse in the beginning chapter of Exodus: “A pharaoh arose who knew not Joseph.”
For our ancestors in Mitzrayim, it must have been a disorienting moment. Having lived in safety and prosperity while Joseph lived, all of a sudden they were confronted with a new reality – in truth, a new plague – in the guise of this new pharaoh. And, as our story progresses, we know that the pain of this new pharaonic plague grew deeper and deeper. It was only after decades and decades of servitude that our cries were heard and God’s outstretched arm lifted us up into freedom.
For us, we imagined that we would be back together by the fall of 2020. It didn’t happen. We spent time in lockdown. We spent the past two years – in a metaphoric sense – shackled. Only now are we beginning to experience what freedom feels like.
But, just as the Children of Israel had to do their parts to be free – to put the blood on the doorposts of their homes, to trust Moses and God to leave Egypt, and to have the courage to step into the Sea before it would part – just as they had to do all that, we, too, have our responsibilities in order for our community, our country, our world is released from the prison of this pandemic. In addition to vaccinations, masks, and hand-washing – we have an additional responsibility in order for ourselves and others to be truly free.
And that is to embrace freedom. Unlike the Israelites at the Sea, who – so says midrash – were fearful of freedom and of taking that first step past Egyptian soil – we are ready for our freedom. But what is it we are free now to do? I suggest that now is the time to re-commit to our congregation and community. Over the next couple of months, we are going to have a number of in-person events, some in our building, ,some outdoors. Let us demonstrate our love for this community and our willingness to step up and volunteer to help. Maybe it’s a vision taskforce. Or coming to one of the remaining Transition, Dreams, and Vision sessions. Maybe it’s stepping foot again into our beloved building. Soon, we will hold Torah Study in person. And all of our Shabbat services – Friday and Saturday – will be in-person (yes, we will continue to livestream). Join us. Let us know that you are with us, that we are a physical community once more.
Passover’s story of freedom is our defining story. May we bring that story to life on this holiday as we emerge from our modern-day servitude to the COVID-19 pandemic. And as we emerge, may we say not “Next year in Jerusalem,” but rather “This year, at this time, may we all be together – in one place – around one seder table, within one building, gathered together wherever we are to tell our story and to celebrate the delicious taste that is freedom and that is Temple B’nai Jeshurun.
Rabbi Arthur Nemitoff