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Passover Is More Important Than Ever

A lot has happened in the past year, and we need this reminder of resiliency and social justice more than ever.

by Cat Bowen

It feels impossible that we are once again preparing for another Passover, isolated and apart from our families, when the holiday is normally so full of family, of tradition. Passover, like so many other Jewish holidays, represents a triumph of life over death, of victory under oppression, and the joys of succeeding through the trials that have befallen us as a people.

Last year it felt novel, like this would be a moment we’d reflect on at next year’s Seder, joking about how Elijah wasn’t the only one who’d skipped out on dinner, and laughing as we embraced and prayed. But instead it feels as though the world fell end over end, and we were all rocked and broken apart at the seams, anticipating a rebirth or something more final. And I can’t help but draw parallels between what has happened over the past year to the origins of the holiday itself. It has given me a new appreciation for not only my ancestors, but of the power of collective memory, of tradition, and of building community.

The story of Passover tells of how Jews escaped enslavement against impossible odds to then only find out that even after we were free, the work had only just begun. For Jews, even though we were no longer the property of others, having suffered, toiled, and fought to win our freedom, we were forced with learning how to live in land where we weren’t valued but to ourselves. In 2021, reflecting over the trials of the past year in our nation, I am feeling our history ever more deeply.

I remember watching the news during Passover last year in astonishment of how much could happen all at once. It wasn’t just the virus. No, the nation was experiencing a cultural flash point, where a citizenry was reckoning with its racist roots. Protests flooded the streets and the internet. We all assumed the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor would be a turning point, but we didn’t know how it would happen or what it would look like. At the same time, another note in the xenophobic dirge that blankets our country was that the policies of the United States meant we were shutting our borders, forcing out anyone who wanted to enter under the guise of COVID protocol and safety. The border camps were not enough, apparently.

In my own neighborhood of Gravesend, Brooklyn, the rates of antisemitic attacks were way up. The kosher baker from whom I buy my Passover sweets refused to deliver because they were worried about being attacked. People texted each other just to check in, making sure they were safe and sound. My husband, a Chinese-American man, was getting screamed at in the streets. Before the pandemic put us all on pause, my son was cornered in school, told he was “infected with the Wuhan flu.” He still worries he won’t be accepted when they return.

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When forced to reconcile such hate and injustice with the love I feel for humanity — instilled in me, in part, by the faith I have — I looked to history. How could I not? A Rabbi I know says, “There is a teaching for everything.” I needed to find my teacher. In the Passover story is where I found it. (And no, not because of the plagues, though there’s plenty of thought to be had on that front.) The Hebrews didn’t lose faith in humanity, in each other. They became resolute. They clung to community and to love. In an impossible time of death and disorder, they found each other.

During the Seder, we read on how important community is for us as Jews. Community means progress, it means safety, and in the story of Passover, it also means screaming out against injustice and crossing borders. The story of Passover is one of giving up privilege and comfort because it’s the right and just thing to do. Before Moses leaves the family of the Pharaoh, he witnesses a Hebrew being beaten and rescues him, causing the death of the Egyptian guard. Moses’ brother, the future Pharaoh, could have made the charge disappear. The ruling family could do what they wanted with impunity, but Moses saw. At that moment, he began to understand the power the Egyptians held over the Hebrews, choosing to flee to Midian instead of making it all go away. When G-d rewards him for this by making him a prophet, he returns to make things right for his people, all because of love. Love for himself, for his people, for G-d.

The Hebrews were willing to act in faith and step out into the unknown, together, because they loved each other, and the idea of a solid, good future was more promising than what they had always known. Even those who had become despondent or complacent at times were spurred into action. They had no idea what was going to happen, much like we don’t know now what will happen from one day to the next. But like the Hebrews, we do know that it takes love, and a willingness to take risks and make big sacrifices, if we’re going to progress.

It’s not everything, but the meaning, right now, is carrying me through. It doesn’t totally quiet the anger in my heart, nor should it. We need to be angry and righteously so. We need that as much as we need love to keep up the fight against racism and xenophobia and hate. We need to be mad that our government failed everyone but the very rich, and made things oh so much worse for Black and brown people. But seeing that there is a future if we are willing to step out into the unknown, embracing community and uniting, and truly meaning it when we give up privilege in favor of equality, I have hope.

The Hebrews wandered in the desert for 40 years, facing trial after trial, and all these thousands of years later, still, we are a diaspora. Some say we still wander. The fight never stops, but neither does the community. The community grows and expands with love and power, and for this year, that’s enough.