Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Why is this night different from all other nights?

According to some friends, every Jewish holiday can be summed up by one of two responses:

The King (Pharaoh, fill in the blank) tried to destroy us, we won/lost, let’s eat.”

That brings us to Passover, the eight-day holiday that commemorates the Exodus—the Jews’ flight from slavery in Egypt to a 40 year-long trek through the desert that led to the Promised Land. The metaphor of an entire nation of people journeying from slavery to freedom is so powerful it’s no wonder many groups and nations throughout history have borrowed this story, remade it in their image, and used it as a banner of hope when times are dark.

It’s an understatement to say that we’re living through dark times. I’ve hesitated to write about it and generalize in any way because I can’t presume to know under what conditions you are experiencing the plague. It’s so wildly different for all of us—except for the aura of uncertainty that clouds our thoughts and actions. Which brings me to the first of the 4 questions traditionally asked during the Passover seder, the ritual meal in which Jews remember (and in a sense, relive) the plagues suffered during the time they were slaves to the Pharaoh and their subsequent escape:

Why is this night different from all other nights?

During the seder in 2020, the experience of naming the plagues and journeying from darkness to light will be different than it has ever been. For the first time, many of us will celebrate alone, away from family, and will rely on Zoom, FaceTime, and Skype to connect with family and friends scattered all over the world. For many of us this will be the first time we’ve lived through a plague and watched it destroy lives. For many of us it will be the first time we suffer from a virus that seems to have come from both the ancient world and a dystopian future.

Below is a passage from my first novel, The Road to Fez, in which a family celebrates Passover/Pesach in Morocco while trying to decide whether it’s safer to remain in Morocco or to take the chance and travel to Israel. Papa Naphtali is the American heroine’s grandfather, a mystic and musician who was inspired by the memory of my own grandfather:

“This is what Pesach means to me,” Papa Naphtali says. “It represents the most courageous, terrifying decision human beings have ever made, to leave a known life of slavery, and to enter the unknown, dangerous promise of freedom. They had to lose the habits of slavery, to learn to straighten their shoulders and to look strangers directly in the eyes. It took forty years of wandering in the desert before the first generation of slaves was gone, and the new generation born free and wild in the desert was ready to fight for the promise. Imagine the terror. Imagine looking over the rocks into the land you thought was a myth, and seeing that it was real, that you could touch the ground and smell the air. We’re always on the verge of freedom, but frightened to take that last step. So what will we do, mes enfants? Remain in the desert for another forty years? Or advance to the vision of light, which may be a mirage?”

Uncertainty may be the most frightening thing of all: we simply don’t know when, where, how this plague will end. We don’t know how long the quarantining/isolation will last. We don’t know what our post-Pandemic world will look like. It will certainly need to be navigated and explored as if we are entering a new country.

“Travelers’ reports differ as to what they saw when they entered the Promised Land. Bananas, oranges and pomegranates growing wild, or shimmering desert; a place of death, or one of life.”

Today is one of those dreamy days when I find myself voyaging to times I wandered freely: doing Sun Salutations at dawn on the Observation Deck of a ship, telling stories to my students on a lower deck of the ship as we sailed directly into the setting sun, digging at an archaeological site near Jerusalem (see photo), exploring a stage set on the Paramount lot in LA, or simply walking into a restaurant and hugging friends. More than anything, I miss hugs!

Each Passover, Jews are urged to relive this experience of plagues, exile, freedom as if we were the ones who lived through the first Passover. Each year we make it a time of reckoning for ourselves and our world: which plagues have we survived? What exiles are we suffering? How has our world changed? What does freedom mean to us? And each year, the traditional wish is: “Next year in Jerusalem.” This year, we may alter that wish to… wherever we hope to see ourselves next year.

Papa Naphtali says, “Time circles and returns to that endless moment in the desert. For the Jews, it’s always that moment. For us, it’s always now.”

And I circle back to the first question: there are many answers, most involving the Passover meal, the ritual foods and songs, the four glasses of wine, and the matzah, but for me, the answer to why this night is different from all other nights is because it returns us to the wanderers in the desert. They are us, and we are them. We have fled plagues, slavery, starvation, and thirst, and now we are poised on the edge of darkness. For a moment we stand together, remembering how it felt to press against each other in the uncertain darkness, before we take the next step, before we know whether it will bring more darkness or light.

That moment.

And then we take a deep breath, drink a glass of wine, and carry on toward the promise of the sun. One step at a time. I'll close with my favorite quote by Camus, a fellow North African:

"I realized, through it all, that in the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there's something stronger – something better, pushing right back."