It’s Pesach, the season of our freedom, a season that celebrates spring time and renewal. And yet this year, despite the trees blooming and the sun shining outside, we are in a season of illness, loss, and isolation. Ordinarily, on this Shabbat of Chol HaMoed Pesach, we would be filling the pews of this sanctuary, singing Hallel and hearing the beautiful “Shir HaShirim” chanted. After the service, we’d be crunching on matzah in the Social Hall, enjoying a noisy and lovely Kiddush together. Your seders this week likely felt very different. Absent were the hugs, the palpable presence of loved ones and friends with whom you are used to celebrating, and the usual robust intergenerational conversation.
We are not celebrating Pesach the way we want to this year, but this is not the first time. Countless times in Jewish history our people have been unable to keep Passover the way they wanted to, due to circumstances beyond their control. In fact, there is a Jewish legal category describing a person in this state. It’s called ones — one who is under duress, constrained from acting freely. Those who fall into this category may be forced to break with tradition to preserve their life, and as we know, one should violate nearly every mitzvah for the sake of pikuach nefesh, saving a life.
During the Holocaust, several rabbis who were imprisoned in the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp knew that neither they nor their fellow Jews could possibly refrain from eating bread during Pesach. Their lives depended on their eating the meager bread they had. Ordinarily before eating matzah on Seder night, they would have recited the blessing: “hineni muchan u’mzuman — I am ready and prepared to fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah.” Unable to observe the tradition, they wrote an absolutely soul-stirring blessing to recite instead before eating bread during Pesach: “Avinu sh’bashamaim – Our Father in Heaven! It is open and known before You that it is our will to do Your will to celebrate the festival of Pesach by eating matzah and refraining from leavened bread. With aching hearts we must realize that our slavery prevents us from such celebration. Since we find ourselves in a situation of sakkanat nefashot, of danger to our lives (should we not eat this bread), we are prepared and ready to fulfill Your commandment, ’And thou shalt live by them (by the commandments of the Torah), but not die by them- v’chai bahem (Lev. 18:5) v’lo sh’yamut bahem– and we are warned by Your warning, ‘Be very careful and guard your life – hizaher l’cha u’shmor nafshecha m’od’ (Deut. 4:9). Therefore we pray to you that You maintain us in life and hasten to redeem us that we may observe Your statutes and do Your will and serve You with a perfect heart. Amen!” (Eliezer Berkowitz, With God in Hell p. 32)
Instead of focusing on the mitzvot they could not fulfill, these rabbis did something radical and optimistic. They focused on the all-important mitzvah they could fulfill, that of protecting and guarding their lives. They followed Moses’s guidance in Deuteronomy: “uvacharta bachayim – Choose life so you and your children will live (30:19).” They knew that this year they were in Egypt, and they prayed that next year they would be redeemed. Their prayer expresses an unshakeable hope that they would live to see a better future. They prayed that they would be able to live in safety, practice Judaism freely, and fulfill God’s mitzvot with full hearts.
And so too do we. This year we are all anoosim, our actions drastically constrained in a world transformed by COVID-19. We miss being with beloved people and keeping beloved traditions. Our sanctuary is empty today. But let us focus less on what we can’t do this holiday and more on the sacred act we are performing. This year we are keeping ourselves safe. This year we are protecting the most vulnerable among us. This year we are cherishing life.
My friend Rabbi David Block wrote a prayer for this Passover inspired by those rabbis in Bergen-Belsen. I’d like to share it with you: “Avinu Shebashamim, Our Father in Heaven! It is open and known before You that it is our will to do Your will to celebrate the festival of Pesach with our communities, families, and friends, to pray and recite Your praises together with our communities, to have an intergenerational conversation about the story of the Exodus, to take care of the elderly, to sincerely invite those less fortunate to partake of the Seder with us, as the Haggadah says, “Anyone who is hungry – come eat, anyone who is needy – come and partake of the Pesach offering.” With aching hearts we must realize that the current precautions around the COVID-19 pandemic prevent us from such celebration, since we find ourselves in a situation of sakkanat nefashot, of potential danger to our lives. Therefore, we are prepared and ready to fulfill Yourcommandment, “And you shall live by them (by the commandments of the Torah), but not die by them,” and we heed Your warning: “Be very careful and guard your life.” Therefore we pray to you that You maintain us in life and hasten to redeem us that we may observe Your statutes and do Your will and serve You with a perfect heart. Amen!”
The Seder, as we know, continually focuses our hearts and minds on a better future. “Hashata hacha,” we say. “This year we are here — next year in the land of Israel. Hashata avdei — this year we are slaves; next year may we be free.” So let us hold fast to this ancient Jewish survival mechanism, this determination to look beyond the sorrows of the present moment to a brighter day. This year we live apart, under the shadow of pandemic. We hope and pray that next year we will be healthy and able to be together again to celebrate Pesach with full hearts.