Pesach in the Age of Social Distancing

By Rebecca Blady

The Pesach Seder, which is just 27 days away, is not a holiday set up for social distancing. The primary goal is to sit around the table, share food (and even dips), drink, talk and sing, and generally share the experience of freedom.

But there is no freedom in quarantine; there is no intimacy with an invisible one-meter health barrier between us.

And yet, our responsibility is to enact the quarantines and barriers, for the sake of a freer society down the road.

It’s not that we’re having Pesach in captivity, as so many of our grandparents and ancestors did, or observing it despite one anti Semitic threat or another. It’s that we’re figuring out a way to make Pesach in private. At home. Intimately, but barely – who and what we bring home needs to be very carefully considered for the sake of ourselves and our families.

Can we do it? Can we create a meaningful Pesach experience independent of people? Can we host our friends, and if so, how many friends should we be hosting? Can we still have deep, all-night conversations when bound by the rules of social distancing? We always wanted the Pesach seder to be a safe space; how can we make this one safe on a whole new level?

The Aish Kodesh’s Pesach

In 1940, Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira was interned in the Warsaw Ghetto. There, he wrote a riveting and theologically complex work called the Aish Kodesh. On Pesach of that year, he wrote about a type of Jew who separates himself from the crowd.

As he begins an exploration of the traditional telling of Four Sons, he delves deeply into the rasha, the “evil” son. It’s said about the evil son that he removes himself from the klal – from the general sentiment, gathering, or culture of the Jewish people.

We’re all wondering what it might mean to remove ourselves from our daily lives and routine. When spiritual community is threatened – as it was in 1940 in Warsaw, as it is now again for completely different reasons – we wonder whether our practices are legitimate. If we separate ourselves from large gatherings and relegate ourselves to our homes, do we lose the essence of a Jewish holiday?

He gives a metaphor. “You see fruits that have fallen from a tree and begin to rot once separated from their root. You know already that the root of a tree is unity: One, unified being, the tree, includes every aspect of the tree – the leaves, the branches, and even the fruits. The leaves and branches, even the trunk of the tree, when they’re separated from the root, they rot, since in truth, when everything is connected to the root, they can exist in true unity. And like the fruit, every part of the tree begins to rot when it’s detached from the root.”

But there’s a problem with this metaphor, says the Rebbe. It’s not the case that only when the fruits, the leaves, and the branches join together, they can become a tree, a unified element, full of life. It’s the opposite. The fruits, the leaves, and the branches are the root itself. It’s not that when they come together, they make a tree. They share a mission in the world: they are the things that branch out, that move, that feed. They give the world individual goodness, because they were part of a rooted, life-giving entity.

This is Klal Yisrael. The Jewish people is not a general principle built on separate details. The Jewish individual branches out from one, unified element. Individual Jews uniting together doesn’t automatically create this beautiful Klal Yisrael – they are built on Nishmat Yisrael, the soul of Israel, that encompasses all Jewish people. And from this shared soul, all individuals can branch out, become their own people, engage in the world.

We, too, are part of a rooted, life-giving entity. So long as we remain connected to Nishmat Yisrael, the soul and spirit of our people, we continue to be unified. Branching out is our nature; we should root down into our core, our mission, and go forward and be. Removing ourselves from our inner spirit, however, is the more dangerous form of separation and seclusion.

We shouldn’t think that simply because we cannot be a part of the greater, physical gathering of Jewish people, that our rituals, our practices, our celebrations are not legitimate. G-d forbid. So long as we root down, as a tree does, and branch out into whatever experience our Seder is meant to be, with whoever is meant to be there to receive our questions, challenge us, and help us tell the Pesach story, we are all part of one experience. This too is spiritual community.

Activating Nishmat Yisrael

In this new age of social distancing, set to last for an unclear amount of time, one (of many) tasks ahead is to activate Nishmat Yisrael, the common soul of Israel, the true underlying concept behind Klal Israel. Remember, it’s never been the case that we activate Jewish community only by gathering together in one large group. Gathering is a beautiful and vital tool to express Nishmat Yisrael, but it doesn’t define Nishmat Yisrael. We, a collection of individuals, by raising our consciousness about who we are and what we are rooted too, define Nishmat Yisrael.

Pesach is coming, and lest we think we shall all become “wicked” children, remember our true responsibility. Pesach is a time of questions. The Aish Kodesh itself makes this statement: We reveal more truth, more knowledge, more depth, more God, through questions. We need friendship on Pesach. The presence of a friend, near or far, can support us tremendously in this process of questioning. In order to have friendship, though, we need to build trust. Building trust in the age of social distancing is a new task, one that none of us are experts in, and yet it’s a task we need to take on strongly. We need to communicate with one another about what it’s like to be alone. If we can build empathy around the experience of being alone, or simply being around fewer people – for whatever the reason, be it an autoimmune disease, a social preference, an instinct, or something else – we are on the path toward activating Nishmat Yisrael.

This year, perhaps, we can skip the crowds. But we do need friendship. We need to ask questions, never be afraid to ask questions and uncover more truth about our world. That’s the Pesach Seder. Asking, challenging, deepening; remembering where our roots are and this great Klal that we’re a part of.

If social distancing means you’ll do Pesach at home this year, consider yourself supported – after all, you are the root itself. And we are here to help you make this real.

Rabbi Rebecca Blady is Executive Director, Hillel Germany.

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