Z’man Heruteinu: The Time of Our (Un)Freedom
A Midrash for a Pandemic Passover
This piece expands upon the verses from Deuteronomy to tell my/our story of the pandemic, just as the Haggadah uses those same verses to tell the story of Passover.
Come and learn what a wandering virus sought to do to humanity:
An Aramean was destroying my father…
The coronavirus began to claim lives and health before we even knew its name. Back in January when something strange was brewing in Wuhan, and we thought it was only there, I traveled with my family to Israel and Budapest, returning to my last semester of rabbinical school, anticipating so much, but knowing so little about what was to come. In February we celebrated Purim with family in Crown Heights, not realizing that it would be the last time we would see one another in person for a year. And then, in late February, when we finally realized that there was COVID 19 within our borders, when the first identified case was a man from Westchester, New York, where I lived, I asked my father, a doctor, if I should be taking the train into the city for school. He said sure, just use hand sanitizer before and after you get on the train car. What else can you do? Not go to school?
Then he went down to Egypt…
Indeed, I did not go to school. Quarantine descended upon us like an uninvited guest ruin our plans. In March classes went online and we didn’t say goodbye, as we figured it would only be for a few weeks. We hoped, assumed, really, that we would be back before the end of the school year. Graduation plans moved to accommodate for possible online ordination but we could hardly stand to entertain the idea. Instead we basked in the pleasure of wearing our pajamas to school and work, the novelty not yet worn off. We delighted in the delicious parts of solitude, the new freedom of our commute-less days. We mourned our cancelled short term plans, groped blindly around our long-term ones. We didn’t say goodbyes. We didn’t think we would have to.
As a small number…
At home we were few in number. We lived alone, or with just a spouse or partner or roommate, feeling the smallness of our dwellings and of the group that lived there. Or we were with children and feeling how small the number and capacity of adults compared to the unruliness now descended upon our kids’ lives. We had never spent so much concentrated time together in our small units. In some ways it was wonderful, in some ways, trying. We read about divorce rates spiking in China post-quarantine and shuddered. I huddled with my husband, made meals, made phone calls, took my classes curled up in our armchair. We waded through, we worried, we wondered, and we waited.
And he became there a nation, great, powerful…
With ever more cases, the virus gathered strength. It claimed lives with alarming ease. The leadership in the country declared that it was weak, that it would be over by Easter, that everything would re-open in the summer, that there were quick, easy solutions. But they didn’t work, and it didn’t end by Easter. Where was our great nation? Where was our first-world-power? We were overpowered by something we couldn’t even see.
The numbers climbed. The very phrase, “numbers” infecting our newsmedia, present in every sentence. What were the numbers? Were they going up? Down? What were the numbers in your area? On the coast? In the middle of the country? We passed milestone after grim milestone. The numbers rose and fell in waves: Covid cases, Covid deaths, the number of states affected, the number of ventilators available, the number of PPD equipment shortages, the number of companies working on developing a vaccine. Only one number, most sought after, remained most obscure: how many days, weeks, months until the end?
The Egyptians dealt harshly with us…
The virus dealt its harsh hand. In New York it was only a matter of time before you knew someone who was ill with coronavirus, who died of coronavirus. In early March the dean of my school tested positive, as did his elderly father, but they got over it. In late march some dear friends of mine, congregants at the congregation I served in Monroe, contracted the virus. They were both quite ill but she got better, he did not. First, it was his heart. Then his lungs. It was pneumonia, no, it was Corona. He was in the hospital, out of it, and in it again. He was getting better, he was stable but not great, he was getting worse. The last time I saw him was on Zoom for services, a ventilator pressed onto his mouth. He forgot to turn his sound off at one point and we could hear him speaking to the nurses, who came in and praised him. They loved him. We all did. And then, in late April, as the garden he lovingly tended began to bloom, he was gone.
and oppressed us…
It was oppressive, this situation. We were stuck. I couldn’t officiate or even attend Jerome’s funeral. My rabbinic ordination, a graduation I’d anticipated for five years, was officially going to be on line. We conducted our seders on zoom, for the first time crying real tears, not just dipping our parsley in salt water to simulate them. We dipped our fingers in our wine to reduce our joy in memory of the plagues, but no need– our joy had already been so far reduced by a plague. Then summer came and opened our doors. At least we could do things outside. As the oppressive shut-in lifted somewhat we thought about other kinds of oppression, the systemic kind, the racist kind. The murder of George Floyd ignited consciousness and people took to the streets. We listened, we tried to learn. We searched our souls to find the places that the system had implicated us, how we ourselves had been involved in the oppression, a search that goes on and could go on forever.
We cried to the LORD
A new Jewish year arrived, and with it, high holiday services like never before: online, mostly, with just a minyan of people well sprinkled across the sanctuary. From the bima I looked around at the empty seats, the ghosts of congregants I would have loved to meet as I began my new job. I cringed like a COVID test had gone up my nose and sang through it, my prayer emerging like a cry. There was new meaning to the liturgy as we wondered who would live and who would die? Who by disease and who of a broken heart, alone and without a will to go on? Who by strangling and who by shooting? The hundreds of thousands of deaths of the past year caught up with our collective psyche and we cried out for mercy, praying for protection.
and the LORD heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression
As time went on we learned to see one another in a different way. We developed new capacity for empathy as we saw in one another reflections of our own hardship, a hardship we collectively endured. We built greater sympathy for those enduring systemic racism as our eyes opened to the violent new evidence of the system’s power. We saw one another, though we looked through screens and photos and lenses and masks we saw one another, as we had not before. That seeing gave us strength to persist through a pandemic, to endure our grief, to uphold our social responsibility and go on wearing protective gear, to refrain from hugging, to stay home, and to do the hard work of tikkun olam, ridding the world of oppression.
The LORD freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm
Finally, in December, vaccines were approved and by January began to be administered into outstretched arms. Immunity trickled slowly into society, reaching medical professionals and the elderly first, those immunocompromised and some of those on the front lines. It did not free all of us. Just as only a fifth of the Israelites left Egypt, only a portion of the population received protection from the coronavirus. Mobilization was slow: lines were long and policies restrictive. Many on the front lines remained unvaccinated even as they went about their essential work: teachers, grocery store workers, and safety officials waited their turn. Discrimination stuck its ugly hand into the system, leaving those who were poor and non-white less vaccinated than those with privileged access to resources, including vaccines. And yet, as immunity began to descend upon the population like rain upon parched earth, we rejoiced. Spring began to warm the world, bringing glimmers of hope for reunions outdoors, so that even as we celebrated our beloved spring holidays in limited ways yet again, we felt that the promised land of COVID eradication was nearer at hand.
He brought us to this place
And so we arrive in this place. Over a year later, we are not where we once were. Even if we sit quarantined in the same house, in the same room, we are not in the same place. Even as we pray from the corners of our counters instead of the hallowed halls of our temple we know that God has brought us to this place. God has given us strength and resilience, flexibility and endurance and life. God has enabled those of us who are alive to survive to this moment, so that we may tell the story of what we have passed through, having been passed over, and so that we may continue to praise God with the holy work of repair.
Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O LORD, have given me.
What are the fruits of this time? What has emerged? What has ended or changed? What will we lay upon the altar of gratitude once we are vaccinated and able to reap the first fruits of freedom from pandemic? Which fruits are sweet and which are bitter? Which pandemic plants will we tend and keep, taking with us in the time ahead? Which will we uproot from the earth, hoping never to see again? Let us take the time to reflect on what they are, giving gratitude to God for having made it to this moment.