OP-ED: Passover in vitro


As more than one commentator has mused, this year’s Passover is very much like the very first Passover. The Torah tells us that prior to the Exodus from Egypt, as the Hebrews sheltered in their own homes with only blood on the outside of their doorposts to protect them, the Angel of Death passed over and spared our people.

Traditional seder plate.

Now that we have arrived at the onset of the Passover holiday, which is central to the observance of Judaism, we, too, much collect our families and our possessions and hunker down while disease and pestilence rage outside. As a God-fearing people, we are enjoined to stay indoors and trust that all will be well and that we will emerge from our isolationism united as a people and somehow stronger for our having endured this period of privation and anxiety.

The scientists have predicted it from the start. Without the distancing required to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, we all were potential carriers who would, unknowingly, spread the novel virus to our loved ones and put those we love at greater risk.

But Judaism is a living, thriving communal organism. We are commanded to join in a minimum of ten – a minyan – as the smallest unit in which the Divine Presence of God descends upon us and constitutes Devarim she-Bikdusha, “matters of sanctity.”

Halachic authorities in observant communities have been pushed to the brink to render opinions on such questions as to whether a Zoom seder is permissible or could a socially distant outside gathering of worshipers be considered as proper and acceptable?

In more than one case they issued a ruling that was far from liberal, judiciously exercising their discretion so as not to create a slippery slope, an instance that could be cited in the future as a way of circumventing strict religious observance in less ominous times.

As a people, we have been especially susceptible to this particular plague. At weddings we dance. At funerals we hug and comfort one another. We cling to our Torah literally and figuratively at our services so that when a Sefer scroll passes in procession, we rush to connect to its outer garments, clamoring to touch it with the fringes of our prayer shawls or the corners of our prayer books. During the laining, or reading, of the Torah service, we remove grand and opulent adornments of precious metals that are perfect carriers for transmission of viruses. At the end of our services we are enjoined to tenderly kiss the communal prayer books and replace them on the proper resting places while others fold their tallit (prayer shawls) and shake hands, hug and kiss one another.

We are a comforting people and this physical separation from our brethren and our sisters and those traditional religious articles that connect us to one another are painful reminders of our solitary existence during this dark period.

Thus we observe this Passover in vitro, a term that literally means to live outside of the living presence of our people. Our seders this year will be small and solitary. Our commandment to invite “all who are hungry” to our tables will not truly be observed this year, nor can our extended family and older generations gather  with us to rehear the story of our ancestors’ Exodus from Egypt.

So like the original Passover, we shall endure as a people and, by making this small sacrifice of separation, we shall be protected. We shall be redeemed by the strong hand and outstretched arm of the Divine by counterintuitively resisting the touch of others and turning inward for our inspiration.

And like the first Passover, when all of  this is over, we shall rejoice in our freedom and return to our precious traditions, holding each other ever more closely and giving praise for our redemption. Chag sameach.


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