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Passover 2020: Finding Triumph In Tragedy

seder food and plate
The traditional Seder meal recalls the story of the Israelites' liberation from Egypt during the time of Moses.

The feast of Passover arrives Wednesday at sundown.  The eight-day celebration is one of the most important events in Judaism, and it’s also significant to Christianity.  This year, millions of Jews around the world will celebrate in quarantine…a moment that offers a glimpse into the origin of Passover itself.


WKAR’s Kevin Lavery speaks with Rabbi Michael Zimmerman with Congregation Kehillat  Israel in Lansing.  Zimmerman recalls the Book of Exodus, which tells how the Israelites escaped 400 years of slavery in Egypt following a series of plagues.


Rabbi Michael Zimmerman:


At this point, the Israelites are commanded to make a sacrifice: to slaughter a lamb, to roast it until it's completely dry, to eat it quickly and with great determination – standing up, if possible – and then to take the blood from the sacrifice and place it over the lentils of their door. That night, the Angel of Death passes through Egypt and the firstborn of all the Egyptians are killed. But because the Israelites have given the signal of the blood on their doors, they are passed over.  Hence, the word “Passover.”And of course, at this point, the Egyptians are just begging the Israelites to leave.


Kevin Lavery:


I can’t help but see a parallel.  An entire nation is huddled together in their homes during this tragedy, essentially hiding from death. I can't help but think that that's what's happening in America right now.


Rabbi Zimmerman:


Yeah, it's a complicated metaphor because this is a plague, basically.  We read (the Book of) Leviticus this time of the year also, which describes the many sacrifices and the offerings that are made. The offerings were necessary to appease God because people often did not have their act together. 


So, what are our sacrifices today?  Staying sequestered in our houses is a sacrifice, following strictly the CDC guidelines, the governor's executive orders…these are sacrifices that are going to support and sustain life.




So, I'll ask you that age old question, Rabbi, but I'll modify it a little bit. Why is this Passover different than all other Passovers?


Rabbi Zimmerman:


In all other Passovers, we gather in families in our communities.  We hold a large festive Seder dinner together with many symbolic foods, and we basically reenact the story of the release from slavery. 


For this Passover, we are in quarantine.  Our congregation always does a Seder on the second night of Passover. In this case, the Seder table is actually going to be the desk in my study, and I will be leading the Seder online via Zoom.




So, the basic core elements of community and of celebrating together will still be there, but modified for the times we're living in right now.


Rabbi Zimmerman:


Absolutely. We're an adaptable people. Our experience so far (is) we've been doing Sabbath morning service on Zoom; we’re also on Facebook Live. We've done classes this way, we’re doing our board meetings this way. And what I'm finding is in many ways, (there’s) a greater sense of community this way than when we all met in person. For one thing, more people are attending every event because they don't have to schedule the extra travel time to come and go; you know, to get dressed early in the morning to come to service.  They can just get out of bed and log on, and if they don't want to be seen they turn off their video!




So people are drawing together?


Rabbi Zimmerman:


People are very much drawn together like I've never seen before. It's incredible the sense of community that we’ve been able to develop through online means.




I can see that it's important for you to remember the positive outcomes that could come from this, because in both Judaism and Christianity, Passover ultimately has a happy ending.


Rabbi Zimmerman:


Yes.  In both of our traditions, there is this irrepressible human spirit that prevails. And whether we frame it as that it's with God's help or just the indomitable will of human beings to create a better world, somehow we come out of this for the best. It gives me hope that we're going to get through this okay.

Kevin Lavery served as a general assignment reporter and occasional local host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered before retiring in 2023.
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