Eternally Egypt (Shabbat Passover during COVID-19)

Posted on April 10, 2020

by Rabbi Jordi Schuster Battis

We have made it to Shabbat and to the middle part of Passover.  We have made it through whatever versions of seder we may have participated in this year—on our own, or on Zoom, or by video, or some of us may have just had a piece of matzah if we could get some and called it a night.  It is a strange year indeed.

But, in whatever ways we have celebrated this year, we can say according to our tradition:  we’ve made it out of Egypt!  We’ve made it across the Sea!  With a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, we’ve been redeemed, and we are free.

Granted, this year, it’s a funny kind of freedom.  When we turned off the lights on seder night and went to bed and woke up in the morning, here we still were, still in our houses.  We are not un-free, exactly, but we are certainly without the freedom that most of us had before.

 

In Hebrew, the word for Egypt is Mitzrayim.  It can be translated as “the narrow straits.”  So, when we read in the Haggadah that the Israelites cried out to God from their slavery in Egypt, it can also be read that they called out from their narrow place.  That’s where we are this Passover too.  In the midst of this pandemic, we are in the narrow straits.  In the narrow walls of our homes.  In the narrow places of waiting, and wishing and praying for loved ones who are ill, or who are just very far away even if they live down the block.  In the narrow spaces of not being able to be with those who need us—or in the narrow space of being up too close with others in our walls.  In the narrow places of anxiety, or in the narrow places of working as hard as we can to make others’ lives livable, or to keep our own bodies and souls and psyches healthy in this narrow time.

 

One of the readings in our prayer book, that we read almost every week as an introduction to Mi Chamocha, says, “We still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot:  that wherever we go it is eternally Egypt.”

It’s a strange reading to offer before Mi Chamocha.  Mi Chamocha is the Song at the Sea that the Israelites sang out when we’d just escaped from Egypt and made it to the Wilderness, but here we are, reading that wherever we go, it is still Egypt all over again.

It’s a strange reading, but this year, it may feel particularly true.

We made it out of Egypt in our seder—but here we are, still in Mitzrayim, still in the narrow straits of our current situation.  It’s a contradiction, but not necessarily a foreign one in Jewish history.  We haven’t always lived in times of pandemics, necessarily, but certainly there have been many times in our past when we were at once free and still trapped behind walls—whether as a people or individually.

Of course, we all know that these things can be true at once.  We can be free of heart and mind and spirit, but still be trapped in the confines of our situation.  We can be filled with joy at celebrating seder by Zoom with friends across the country, but still be filled with grief at not getting to celebrate in the ways we are used to.  We can be filled with loneliness at being alone in our homes, and still be filled with a sense of deep companionship and solidarity, knowing that others around the globe are experiencing things in the same way.  We can be filled with fear for what’s to come and filled with a sense of blessing that we are here, all at the same time.

 

In our service every week, we place ourselves in different moments in our story of humanity and the Jewish people—
in Maariv Aravim, we visit Creation;
in Sh’ma, we are standing in the Wilderness with Moses, about to enter the Promised Land;
in Mi Chamocha, we are again standing on the shores of the Sea;
in Aleinu, we see a future world of redemption, in which all are at peace and all are free.

In each of these prayers, we put ourselves inside these stories, as if we were there.  Maybe we were.

In our prayers, we’re placing ourselves in one moment in time after another:
bang! we are witnessing Creation;
poof! we are standing with Moses;
pop! we are slaves;
boom! we’re singing on the Shores;
clang! we’re in a future, beautiful time.

It’s a little bit of time traveling whiplash, and it’s not even in order.  Are we in the past or in the future?  Are we just entering the Wilderness or are we about to leave it?  Are we slaves or are we free?

And we know from this Passover that the answer is:  yes!  We are all of these things at once.   We are all of these times at once.  We are now, while we are still remembering the past, and dreaming for the future.  May it be a good one.

This year we are in our separate corners, in our narrow spaces.  Next year, may our place be broad and embracing.  May the sweetness of Shabbat even now permeate the walls we are in and give us the filling comfort that we need.  And even in the narrow times of Mitzrayim can we find our best ways to be free.