Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Pesach Joy in the Time of COVID-19

This is a terrible time to celebrate Pesach. A holiday when we tell the joyous story of liberation at intergenerational gatherings has arrived at a time when we hide from each other and listen to news accounts of grief, suffering and economic devastation. Under ordinary circumstances, this would not be a time for laughter and joy; but the calendar says Wednesday night is the 15th of Nissan, and it is time to celebrate.

This jarring change of mood is familiar to anyone who observes shiva during Shabbat or before a holiday. The Talmud explains that we cancel the traditional mourning period of shiva in the face of a holiday, because one must push aside personal grief to make room for the communal celebration of the holiday; and the mourner needs to celebrate as well. The mourners are expected to make the emotional shift from grief to joy in the course of an afternoon.

This is not always possible. Indeed, Rabbi Moshe Isserles allows one to cry on Shabbat if it offers the person emotional relief; this helps the grief stricken to better enjoy Shabbat. But the ideal remains complete emotional control. In his Halakhic Man, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik relates an anecdote about the Gaon of Vilna, who was informed about the passing of his brother on Shabbat. The Gaon continued the rest of the day without any show of emotion, but at the conclusion of Shabbat immediately burst into tears. He was simply holding his emotions in check.

This type of emotional self-control seems out of place in a culture which values self-expression, and sees emotional expressions as cathartic. But that is what halakha expects of us as the holiday of Pesach arrives. The commandment to rejoice on the holiday remains the same this year, whatever our own emotional state might be.

In many ways, joy is actually more important this year. In good times, we get on a hedonic treadmill, and pursue big dreams while ignoring smaller blessings. But in times of crisis, you appreciate all the things you couldn’t live without.  Each year we sing the Dayenu song, saying that each step in the Exodus was worthy in its own to be the cause of celebration; each step was dayenu, enough of a blessing. But this is the year to embrace the idea of dayenu in our own lives.

Dayenu to have friends, even if we can only reach them by phone.
Dayenu to have food, even if there is a long wait to enter a supermarket.
Dayenu to be blessed to have a healthcare system with incredible heroes on the front lines.
Dayenu to be blessed with a community with multiple volunteers rushing out to help others.

There is so much we take for granted in other years; this year is the time to appreciate overlooked blessings.

Joy is particularly important in times of crisis. In one of his books, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote a comment critical of the Roberto Benigni film “Life is Beautiful”. While he said that he appreciated how important humor is to keeping one’s sanity, he disagreed with the film's thesis that humor can keep you alive.  A survivor spoke to Sacks to correct him on this point. Sacks writes:

“You are wrong,” …(he) said to me, and then, he told me his story. He and another prisoner in Auschwitz had become friends. They reached the conclusion that unless they were able to laugh, they would eventually lose the will to live. So they made an agreement. Each of them would look out, every day, for something about which they could laugh. Each night they would share their findings and laugh together. “A sense of humor,” said the survivor, looking me in the eyes, “kept me alive.”

Sacks concludes by writing: “I cannot say I understand such courage, but I found it awe-inspiring.”

Sometimes joy is the foundation of courage. At times of crisis, we must find a way to celebrate, and inspire ourselves to hold on to our love for life; we must continue to sing, so we can reconnect to passions we have forgotten behind a mountain of worries.

That is why this year rejoicing on Pesach is critical in the battle against  the coronavirus. Yes, joy does seem out of place right now; but Pesach was Pesach even in the worst of times. We need to celebrate, we need to sing, even if we are singing alone, because an inspiring Pesach is exactly what we need today.

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