By Susanna Lachs Adler
This week, Jewish communities around the world have come together to celebrate and observe Passover. The cherished seders are steeped in tradition and marked as a time when friends and family near and far come together to reconnect over our shared history.
Everyone has his or her favorite part of their evening, such as when the youngest at our table is tasked with asking the four questions, starting with Ma nishtana: Why is this night different from all other nights?
How could a question have more meaning at this moment in time? To be sure, these last several weeks have felt more different and unsettling than anything we have ever experienced. The COVID-19 virus is a modern-day plague of a magnitude not experienced in any of our lifetimes.
For many of us, observing Passover this year makes our current reality even more terrifying, and reminds us how alone and isolated we are. As we observe the holiday alone or gathered with just the occupants of our household, making do with limited ingredients and including video and Zoom for the first time, the ancient story of freedom from bondage takes on a whole new level of importance.
As Jews, we are taught that freedom is the fundamental right of humanity. On Passover, we take pride in encouraging our children to approach life as if they personally were the ones who bravely left Egypt to seek out safety and independence.
We remind them that we lost our freedom so that Jews would always know what it felt like to be a slave, and that it was our duty to become the world’s most consistent fighters for freedom. We remind them that we wandered in the desert for 40 years so we would not lose the lesson of valuing the sanctity of life and so that we as Jews would never settle for anything less than freedom in every generation.
But how can we make this message resonate as we shield ourselves from suffering and shelter in place in our homes? Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who is watching the COVID-19 pandemic devastate Europe, recently shed some wisdom that struck a chord with me. He reminded us that, “When we share our affliction with others, when we share what little we have with others, we turn the bread of affliction into the bread of freedom. Affliction shared is the beginning of redemption.”
Sacks reminds us that while we may mourn the fact that we are alone on Passover due to social isolation, the truth is that we have actually never been more together and united, both as Jews, and as members of the human race. While we may be cut off from one another, every person on the planet is tasting the bitterness of suffering. We are all scared, we are all worried about our families and we are all fumbling in the darkness.
It can be hard to see beyond our own suffering, but on Passover we are reminded that we don’t recall just the agony of our ancestors, but that we also share in the pain of the suffering of the Egyptians who drowned in the Red Sea. The Passover story set forth in the Haggadah is a reinforcement of these Jewish values, and during the time of the coronavirus this brings me hope. We know that shared suffering brings people together, even people who found it very hard to come together before.
For every news story on the tragedy of the pandemic, so too are there incredible stories of people working collectively to combat the suffering of others. As the board chair of the Jewish Federation, I have marveled at the speed and efficiency at which our community has united to share critical resources to support our most vulnerable residents, including the hundreds of Holocaust survivors who have been retraumatized by this pandemic.
We’ve seen hundreds of volunteers step up and take on new roles as food delivery drivers, mask sewers and caregivers. The generosity of our donors is unparalleled: our emergency response fund has now raised nearly $1 million to be disbursed to organizations who are doing amazing work on the front lines of this pandemic.
I am humbled by the people who have again put their faith in trust in their Jewish Federation to distribute these life-saving resources here in the Greater Philadelphia region and in Israel. Along with the heroism of the doctors and nurses who fight every day to save lives, I am more inspired by humanity than ever before.
There is much to be done to overcome this pandemic. We are reminded that Passover begins with the story of suffering and ends with the story of redemption thanks to the bravery and sacrifice of so many. Now it is time to do our part to make the year 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic the same story.
To all in our Jewish communities I wish you a chag sameach. Let us all end our seders together singing from the song our family and many of yours consider a favorite, chad gadyah: Let God come and stop the angel of death. Speedily and Soon. Amen.
Susanna Lachs Adler is the board chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.