How Can We Celebrate? (How Can’t We?)

During our first Corona Week, I wrote about the spirituality of melting down. During our second Corona Week, I wrote about the liberation journey when so little feels like freedom.

This week, on Passover’s doorstep, I’m struck by the split-screen dual reality of Jewish spiritual life in this moment. We’re about to celebrate while many thousands die, while millions suffer, and while billions are locked down. We’re about to celebrate Jewish peoplehood and Passover’s liberation even amidst a plague.

How can we possibly do this? How dare we do this?! What kind of people would celebrate at a time like this? 

After all, we aspire to a Jewish life that is really real – not performative, not fake, not blind or deaf to what’s happening outside or inside. We aspire to a Jewish life worthy of the pride, meaning, values, strength and continuity that we bring forward from ancestral tradition into our own day.

What kind of Jewish life would be worthy of that, and of us, by celebrating at a time like this?

Many answers come to mind. I want to share just a few.

One answer is about Jewish defiance. Jewish spiritual life asks chutzpah (audacity). Jewish life survived and thrived throughout ages of adversity. Our ancestors learned to wrest every bit of blessing they could – not only when it was easy but precisely when it was difficult. It’s how our ancestors could defy the odds. It’s how Israel can flourish despite the odds. We’ll celebrate Passover that way – with chutzpah to channel needed blessing now.

A second answer is about actualizing shared intention to serve the world. Passover isn’t just about us individually and isn’t just for fun. Passover is to galvanize us as a community, to re-dedicate us to our core values – and then send us out in the world to live those values. Our “send off” to the world will be partially delayed this year, but our annual re-dedication is still vital and timely.

A third answer is about Seder rituals themselves. The Seder is strikingly honest that often liberation comes at a high price. Blood on the door, spilling wine for the Ten Plagues, rebuking angels who celebrate that Egyptian slavers drowned, eating maror (bitter herbs), eldest children fasting – these are just a few of the Seder’s honest reminders. The Seder isn’t a saccharine celebration: it’s deep honesty enfolded in a banquet of poignance.

A fourth answer is about existential truth. Passover’s story might have been that “God led us out of there,” then displayed liberation’s “mighty hand and outstretched arm” – the “awesome power, signs and wonders” that brought freedom. Rather, our Torah and Haggadah pointedly portray that our ancestors experienced liberation’s awesome power while they were still in Egypt, still in bondage, still in chains. Collective liberation rises up precisely amidst our collective bondage – not after it.

This existential truth is important, especially now. Collective liberation and transformation can rise up for us precisely in how we experience this moment of pandemic turmoil, lockdown, deprivation and suffering. We celebrate Passover not to pretend them away, but with intention to make real the timeless promise of transformation.

How? We start by experiencing exactly how we are now, intending that it galvanize us once we’re free. Maybe the sharp memory of these days will help us delight in each other even more, and not take human contact for granted. Maybe we’ll shift how we connect both “live” and “online.” Maybe we’ll make global and national policy changes to help avoid pandemics and respond wisely to global inter-connectedness. Maybe we’ll re-imagine what Jewish life is for us individually and in community. Our experience now – at every level – can and must drive us forward.

So how can we celebrate Passover this year? How can we not! Jewish chutzpah and continuity, telling our timeless story in all its complexity, galvanizing us to live our values in the world – these are how we’ll rouse liberation anew. We start right now, exactly where we are: liberation begins precisely here and now.

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