PESACH: BEING FREED BY THE PANDEMIC – EVEN AFTER THE PANDEMIC

Rabbi Yehoshua Weber

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We isolated so much during the recent Covid pandemic.

That isolation was terrible.

That isolation, though – at least for some us – was also empowering.

Some of our marriages and our family lives improved while isolating.

That happened because isolation – by confining us at home – made us spend more time with spouses and family.

And that let us focus more on spouses and on family.

Some of us became more spiritual while isolating.

That happened because isolation – coupled, as it was, with Covid illness and death – evoked thoughts about mortality, spirituality and about life’s essence.

And some of us became more understanding of our own and of our families’ needs.

That happened because isolation limited our interactions with our thereby lessening the accompanying “keeping up with the Jones’” pressures. That, in turn, let us see our needs for what they really are. Yes, Covid unearthed latent powers.

And it isn’t just Covid that can unearth such powers.

Other calamities – even calamities as catastrophic as the Holocaust –
can unearth such powers.

That’s documented in an eye-opening study comparing the achievements of two cohorts – Holocaust survivors and American-born Jews – to one another.[1]

The study found that survivors’ marriages to be stronger than those of their American peers.[2] It also documented how survivors’ mental health was better than that of their American peers. And it noted that
survivors’ financial successes surpassed those of similarly educated American Jews.

It also noted that survivors achieved these successes despite the following gut-wrenching handicaps: They usually had no family and no financial resources. They usually had very little formal education. And
they were also crippled by terrible memories, anxieties and nightmares.

Those survivors, though, still leapfrogged past their American peers.

And they did that because, the Holocaust, despite all its horrors, still unearthed latent strengths.

Survivors lost family. That made them attach special value to their families. So many of them invested heavily in their families.

Survivors faced starvation and impossibly hard labor. That forced them to unearth latent resources that others never discovered. Those resources – once discovered – let them persevere where others
faltered.

Survivors’ material and social successes were sometimes supplemented by spiritual strengths. Those strengths displayed themselves in the unwavering faith that one sometimes saw among survivors.

Here too, the Holocaust’s spectre of death may have fostered a soul-searing spirituality among some survivors.

Stating that the Holocaust engendered strengths doesn’t, of course, minimize the Holocaust’s monstrosities.
Nothing can minimize those monstrosities.

This statement, rather, highlights a truism. And that’s that adversities can strengthen us.

And it’s a truism that may explain how the same Pesach mitzvos – oxymoronically enough – each recall both affliction and slavery.

Let’s explore this oxymoron by looking at one such mitzvah, matzah.

Matzoh recalls slavery. That’s seen in how it’s called “lechem oni.”[3] That’s, generally, translated as “bread of affliction.”[4]

Afflicted slaves would, indeed, eat unleavened matzah in lieu of bread. They did for a number of reasons. Firstly, harried slaves matzah didn’t have enough time to let their dough rise into bread.[5] Secondly, slaves couldn’t afford the yeast that makes dough rise into bread.[6]

So slaves ate matzoh – which is why matzoh recalls slavery.

Matzo, though, also recalls freedom. It’s the following possuk: “They left [Egypt]..and baked the dough they took … as matzos…because they… couldn’t tarry [and let the dough rise].”[7]

Matzah, then, oxymoronically enough, recalls both slavery and freedom.

And maror, surprisingly enough, also recalls both slavery and freedom.

Maror certainly recalls slavery. That’s seen in the statement we make at the seder: “Why do we eat maror? Because they embittered our lives.”[8]

Maror, though, at least according to the following opinion, also recalls affluence: “Their tradition was to eat … meals with maror …even if an Egyptian only had bread, maror was on his table …” [9] Maror is, then, also a meal-enhancing condiment. It, too, also recalls affluence and freedom.

On Pesach, then, the contradictory motifs of affliction and freedom meld together.

And that’s because these motifs aren’t contradictory. Why not? Because Egyptian affliction, like the Holocaust, granted us certain strengths and “freedoms.”

The Egyptians destroyed our families. They threw our babies into the Nile.[10] And they confined men to labor camps, thereby sundering them from their wives.[11] All that loss made us more appreciative of family – which prompted us to invest more in family.

In addition, the impossible Egyptian slavery forced us to muster latent strengths. That empowered us by showing us just how strong we really were.

As well, our Egyptian suffering sparked contemplation. And that ignited a search for meaning and a religious awakening.

There’s a message here for all of us as we reflect back on life before, during and after Covid.

In our pre-Covid lives, we may not have appreciated a good standard of living – because we wanted an extraordinary one. We may have fretted over the vicissitudes of normal marriage and children-rearing – because we wanted ever perfect, ever pliant spouses and children. And we may have overlooked the spiritual because we focused on the material.

The pandemic, though, through it’s challenges may have unearthed – at least for a period – certain relationship and spiritual bounties.

Those bounties, if nurtured, can remain with us.

If they do remain with us, then living post-pandemic won’t just be about being freed from the pandemic.

It will also be about being freed by the pandemic.

[1] Dr. William Helmreich, “Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They
Made in America,” Simon & Schuster, 1992; Dr. William Helmreich Don’t Look Back: Holocaust
Survivors in the U.S., Jerusalem Letters of Lasting Interest, Oct. 1 1991

[2] As of 1991, 11 percent of the survivors were divorced vs. 18 percent of American-raised Jews.

[3] Devarim 16:3

[4] Pesachim 115b, Sifri 130. Although see a differing, more positive reading in Gemara there.

[5] Sforno, Chizkuni Ad loc.

[6] Netziv ad loc.

[7] Shemos 12:39

[8] The Pesach Haggadah’s reason for marror.

[9] The Spanish Chachamim quoted by Ibn Ezra, Peirush HaAruch, Shemos 12:8

[10] Shemos 1:22

[11] Sotah 11b