Honouring both celebration of Passover and pain of pandemic

How to honour the joy of the seventh day of Passover during a pandemic, where many of us — Jews and others alike — might be feeling a sense of gratitude, rejoicing at the fact that COVID-19 has not affected us or our loved ones.  But others are not as fortunate.

'Jews and others alike' can feel gratitude for good health and be aware of those not so fortunate

Rabbi Kliel Rose on seventh day of Passover, during COVID-19 pandemic, says 'often, our greatest moments of liberation come at others’ expense. Nevertheless, we are permitted, and even commanded, to celebrate.' (Submitted by Kliel Rose)

As we embark on the last two days of this major Pilgrimage Festival — which is focused on liberation — I wonder, how many of us will observe the seventh and eighth days of Passover? 

As many of us already know anecdotally, more Jews in Canada experience a Passover Seder than observe any other Jewish ritual throughout the year.

But the observance of the seventh day of Passover, which was mandated in the Torah, is also a highly significant moment which needs to be commemorated.

I think the lessons gleaned about this one particular day will not only not resonate with Jews, but with all of us feeling a bit enslaved to this requirement of physical distancing. 

Perhaps we are all feeling the very opposite of free at this time of a global pandemic.

Cantor Tracy Kasner (left) and Rabbi Kliel Rose lead a virtual Seder prior to the start of Passover on April 8, 2020. (Submitted by Kliel Rose)

According to the Torah, once it has already established the first day of Passover as a holy day, we are then commanded, "… and in the seventh day a holy convocation; no manner of work shall be done…"

There is no explanation offered in the text for the holiness of the seventh day. 

The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra provides a plausible theory: "The seventh day is the day of Pharaoh's drowning and being rendered powerless." 

The meaning of the seventh day of Passover is both insightful and filled with a layer of complexity.- Rabbi Kliel Rose

Passover's final festive day, then, celebrates the anniversary of the fulfillment of our ancestors' freedom.

Rabbi Barry Block teaches that "in our own lives, we experience 'first day' liberations very much in need of 'seventh days.'

"We feel free when we extricate ourselves from harmful addictions, toxic relationships or soul-numbing employment. 

"And yet we may be experiencing anxiety until we are firmly established in new, healthier behaviours, loving relationships or meaningful work. 

"Only then do we know the liberation that our ancestors celebrated on the east bank of the sea."

There is meaning in this idea. Survivors of the concentration camps were liberated when the Allies were victorious. 

But frankly, they were not truly free until the newborn State of Israel persevered over her enemies during the War of Independence.

At the Seder last week, many of us did something quite unusual when it came to reciting the plagues which God wrought upon the Egyptians.

Rabbi Kliel Rose as he prepares to burn the Chametz/leavened products before Passover. (Submitted by Kliel Rose)

We diminished part of the wine or grape juice in our Kiddush cups as a way of demonstrating our incongruity in celebrating the day that Pharaoh and his chariots were drowned in the sea.

Eliahu Kitov argues that "holidays were not given to Israel to mark the downfall of [our] enemies …The essence of the celebration of this day is the song that Moses [, Miriam,] and Israel were Divinely inspired to sing on this day."

The meaning of the seventh day of Passover is both insightful and filled with a layer of complexity. 

Often, our greatest moments of liberation come at others' expense. Nevertheless, we are permitted, and even commanded, to celebrate.

Right now, many of us — Jews and others alike — might be feeling a sense of gratitude, rejoicing at the fact that we are healthy and that COVID-19 has not affected us or our loved ones. 

And yet, as we take some measure of momentary satisfaction from our personal situation, we are also acutely aware that there are others who are not as fortunate. 

In fact, we know all too well that so far, more than two million people have been infected by this virus.

Like those of us who diminished liquid from our cups for the plagues upon Egypt during our Seders, we would be wise to explore the tense reality of those who have been "plague-ridden" — and the disastrous effects it has on those who are infected, along with their loved ones. 

Perhaps we can do so without diminishing our current state of good health.

Just as we took note of the suffering of the Egyptians with great empathy at the Seder, is it possible to do so without reducing the miraculous moment of liberation our ancestors felt at the shores of the Red Sea? 

This, I believe, would be the appropriate way to honour the most valuable theme of the seventh day of the Passover, as well as the entire holiday cycle and celebration.

This column is part of  CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.



About the Author

Kliel Rose was born in Israel and grew up in Winnipeg. After being away for 26 years, last year he returned home with his family. He is the rabbi and spiritual leader of Congregation Etz Chayim.