This is hardly the first Passover the Jewish people have endured during times of affliction or pain. The fact that we might even ask how to regard this season is a testament to how fortunate we have been over the past decades, particularly in the United States. It has not always been so; other profound distresses have long impacted our reading of the Haggadah — the text of the Passover Seder — and the meaning of the holiday.
This is not our people’s first experience of widespread pandemic. The Talmud warns of staying home when there is a “plague in the city,” and of course, the Black Plague was devastating to Jews when it ravaged Europe from 1347 to 1351 — both in terms of deaths from the disease and from the hundreds of anti-Jewish pogroms and massacres that came after scapegoating Jews for the disease.
The 14th-century Talmudist Nissim of Gerona, known as the Ran, suggested that the “unusual afflictions which it is impossible to attribute to the workings of nature” must be some sort of divine punishment. The only meaning he could make of the horror — as many did in a time without the scientific knowledge we have today — was to seek a theological message. In Northern France, the scribe Yaakov ben Shlomo Hatzarfati also drew parallels to biblical interventions, leaving a haunting note in the margin of his Wolff Haggadah next to the names of the 10 Plagues of Egypt. He referred readers to the book in which he had recorded, with heartbreaking detail, his daughter Esther’s final moments before her death from the Plague. It serves both as a reading of his experience into the Torah and a grief-filled bearing of witness.
At other times, Jews’ suffering has led to, as writer Roi Ben-Yehuda put it, “vent[ing] their indignation by sublimating and spiritualizing their desire for vengeance.” In the wake of the massacres of the Crusades, a section of the Haggadah was expanded in the 11th and 12th centuries, using verses from two Psalms and Lamentations to ask God to “pour out Your fury on the nations that do not know you, and upon the kingdoms that do not invoke Your name, for they have devoured Jacob [that is, Jews] and destroyed his home. Pour out Your wrath on them; may Your blazing anger overtake them. Pursue them in wrath and destroy them from under the heavens of the Lord.”
Many contemporary Haggadot are uncomfortable with and even omit this section, and a 16th-century manuscript from Worms, in what’s now Germany, added a note for God to “pour out Your love on the nations who have known You …” Whether the theological conclusions of those who added this passage resonate today, we can understand how a community might need to find expression for its feelings of anger and powerlessness in a safe, ritualized way when everything outside seemed to rage beyond control.
Today, most of us probably don’t assume, like Rabbi Nissim, that God has sent us the coronavirus. I certainly don’t. Nor do I find it helpful to ask God to pour out wrath on anybody. But we can empathize with the way in which Yaakov ben Shlomo Hatzarfati used the Exodus story to give voice to his grief and pain, and even perhaps with the Crusade-era Jews’ attempts to name their feelings in the space of the Seder.
Today, as then, we’re allowed to feel grief, and pain, and we’re allowed to be angry at those in power who have allowed this pandemic to blow up and leave the people working on the front lines and those in need without adequate supplies, as well as at those who perpetrated the systems of inequality that are exacerbating suffering now. Jews are already helping to bring the conversation about our emotional needs now into our seders: One significantly less wrath-filled discussion guide by Jordan Namerow, for instance, is based on the Four Children of the Hagaddah.
Another response to profound suffering at Passover can also be instructive to us now. Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, writing from occupied Poland in 1940 — after the Nazis had blocked Jewish bank accounts, compelled them to serve as forced laborers, demanded they display a Jewish star on doors and windows and wear an identifying armband, and just before Shapira and others were blockaded into the Warsaw Ghetto — discussed the Torah’s description of God leading the people Israel out of Egypt as a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night. This imagery comes to tell us, he suggested: “not only when the going is soft and easy must we go in God’s ways … but also when, God forbid, we are in pain and darkness. For when a person enjoys generous good fortune, it is easy for him to worship God joyously. … Nevertheless when he is suffering, God forbid, he must take advantage of that situation also, to worship God with his broken heart and with an outpouring of the soul.”
This Passover, many Jews will hold what are probably the smallest seders of their lifetimes — perhaps with their households, perhaps alone, perhaps connecting virtually with other family or to one of many live-streamed seders, perhaps ill, perhaps grieving, perhaps exhausted after long days caring for the sick, perhaps terrified for their loved ones, their country or the world. Maybe we need to find not only the cloud leading us during the day, but also to look for the fire in the darkness. We are here. We are able to celebrate Passover. It isn’t in the most ideal situation, but we can mark it nonetheless, pouring out our soul in all of the ways that we must. Maybe — dayeinu. That can be enough for now.