For Jennifer Greenblum, this year’s Passover challenges included coordinating with family members who would be joining the Seder via Zoom on Wednesday, making sure everyone was reading from the same haggadah and helping her daughter — who is hosting this year — prepare for the meal.
What the Westlake resident didn’t struggle with: finding relevance in the ancient biblical story of the Israelites fleeing Egypt, a story that includes terrifying plagues, a slave revolt and a miraculous escape across the Red Sea.
With the coronavirus pandemic stirring dread and forcing people to stay home, the world feels pretty biblical, Greenblum said.
"How ironic that in 2020 we are in the middle of a plague," she said.
Greenblum remembers Seders from her youth that felt almost "robotic." There’s no fear of that this year. The cup of Pesach symbolism runneth over.
The Passover story depicted in the Book of Exodus describes the Israelites throwing off the shackles of slavery in Egypt. God sends 10 plagues to punish the Egyptians, including the angel of death who kills every firstborn son in the land but passes over the Israelites’ doors marked with lamb’s blood. Moses eventually leads his people on a daring escape, parting the Red Sea, in which the pursuing Egyptians are drowned.
The Seder, a meal with symbolic ingredients that recount the exodus story, has always invited Jews to seek fresh interpretations. They partake in foods such as bitter herbs to remember the bitterness of slavery and vegetables dipped in salt water representing the tears of the enslaved Israelites. And they ask themselves how the Passover story applies to their own lives in the modern world.
Greenblum, a member of Temple Beth Shalom, is using a guide designed this year for virtual Seders and drawing from a Judaism class she’s been taking to sift through the layers of meaning in the age of coronavirus. The goal is to have a deep conversation when her family gathers — in person and via Zoom — at her daughter’s house in Allandale.
There are so many angles, Greenblum said. Even the matzo consumed during the eight days of Passover is a reminder that just as the ancient Israelites did not have time to make leavened bread for their journey, people today are making do with whatever food they can find at the grocery store.
Today’s version of Moses, she added, could be Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, or New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
"Whatever that story was thousands of years ago applies today," Greenblum said, adding that the Passover narrative offers hope even in bleak times. "We will take the situation where we are, and we will overcome it and have freedom again. … We have no choice but to have faith in God and that he will take care of us."
Jewish leaders realize that this year’s unusual Passover might test that faith as people worry about loved ones they can’t visit, struggle to coordinate their first virtual Seder and generally feel overwhelmed by the steady drumbeat of bad news.
Rabbi Neil Blumofe of Congregation Agudas Achim reflected on the both the physical and spiritual notions of being stuck in mitzrayim, or the narrow place, the term the Israelites used for Egypt. With stay-at-home orders and the prevailing fear and anxiety, that sense of being stuck resonates more deeply today.
But, he said, the Seder reminds Jews they can celebrate in defiance of their circumstances — even if they feel confined.
"Let us remind ourselves," he said, "that we are free and that freedom really is a state of mind."
For Yaira Robinson, a Lake Travis resident and member of Congregation Agudas Achim, contemplating the biblical plagues in light of the current pandemic helped her prepare spiritually for Wednesday’s Seder.
"I find myself thinking about that last terrible plague and what it must have felt like to cower inside as death passed over," she said. "With COVID-19, though, there are no exempt groups—just some who are more vulnerable: older people, poor people and those who feed and care for others."
Robinson will hold a quiet Seder with one of her sons at home.
"We’ll talk about how the Passover story resonates in the context of our global pandemic," she said. "We’ll talk about fear and loss, inequality and vulnerability, community and solidarity. We’ll talk, too, about hope—hope that one day, we’ll all get to emerge from our separate places and walk freely without fear, together with our loved ones again, in celebration and joy and gratitude."
In some ways, Greenblum sees the challenge of this year’s Passover as a spiritual gift. People are forced to make accommodations, to go without luxuries, to endure separation.
"It strips you down to your most basic self," she said.
The Passover story, she said, reminds Jews that they’ve always overcome conflict and that "this year will not be an exception."