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Connecting the Passover story to the pandemic

We asked Boston-area rabbis for their thoughts

Rabbi Elaine Zecher of Temple Israel of Boston will host a communal seder via Zoom.
Rabbi Elaine Zecher of Temple Israel of Boston will host a communal seder via Zoom.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” says Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz of Temple Emanuel in Newton.

Like many in the Jewish community, he sees a rich opportunity to connect the Passover story with the pandemic. “The coronavirus Seders can be beautiful, connecting and compelling if we use the symbols and texts of the Hagaddah (the book that tells the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt) to reflect in real time on the meaning of the health crisis,” he told the Globe.

We asked Boston-area rabbis for their thoughts. Replies have been edited and condensed.

Rabbi Leonard Gordon, B’nai Tikvah Synagogue, Canton


There are strong parallels between this year’s Seders and the very first Seder night when the Children of Israel prepared to leave Egypt. Moses told the people to stay in their homes. They locked their doors and protected themselves from the threat of death that swirled around them. They ate in small groups unsure about their future, but hoping for the best. This defines our moment as well.

For many Jews, this is the holiday of obsessive preparation and high level of observance of the dietary and other restrictions of the holiday. This year, in all denominations, rabbis are advocating ways to lighten some of the burdens. Zoom Seders are being broadly permitted. Cleaning of homes and cars are being done with less punctiliousness. In general, creativity is the rule.

Rabbi Elaine Zecher, Temple Israel of Boston, which will host a communal Seder via Zoom.

So many people have become slaves to computers. But this year the computer and the Internet are symbolically and literally our pathway to a world we would not normally have. We can think of the path to the computer as the waters opening up, freeing us from being confined to our homes. Giving us the freedom to actually sit together and experience something beautiful. Many people feel the Internet and the Web are abundantly over-consuming, and it’s true that many of us have lost the ability to disconnect. Yet this is connecting for a sacred purpose.


Rabbi Mark Sokoll, CEO of Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston.

To my mind, interconnectedness has always been a big part of the Seder, the idea that Jews experience liberation, and our sense of peoplehood is born and is possible for all people. But this year, the theme of interconnectedness is stronger than ever, thinking about how our experience is connected to everybody’s experience. Someone breathes in and out in Wuhan and it affects someone in Palo Alto or Australia.

Rabbi Mayshe Schwartz, director of the Chai Center of Brookline and Young Jewish Professionals, Boston

Most of us don’t feel so free. Yet Passover is the time that the gift of freedom is given to us. So this year we have to go deeper internally to appreciate that gift of freedom. If leaving Egypt meant anything, it means leaving the limitations we find ourselves in at any given moment and still having a deep sense of connection and freedom. No one can take away our identity, no quarantine or social distancing can take that from us. As a people, 2020 is the moment our generation will rise to the challenge of expressing Passover with its message of liberty and freedom. Everyone needs to hold strong as we rise above the “Egypt” of this moment. By eating matzo — the “Bread of Faith” — we can injest this sense of freedom gifted to us.


Rabbi Liza Stern, Congregation Eitz Chayim, Cambridge

There is a conversation perhaps waiting to be had about the parallels between our times and Pharoah’s day; so many “plagues” have beset us these last few years: the fires, the floods and storms, global warming, locusts, Mad Cow and Ebola and SARS, and now COVID-19, not to mention the crises created by political forces: wars, displaced, starving, dying people. How are we to make meaning out of all of this?

Passover will happen, in some form, for each of us. At the very least, each of us — in our own homes and in our own ways — will find a way to connect with the essential messages of the holiday: that each of us must see ourselves as if we were the ones making the Exodus from slavery to freedom; that faith or hope in a better future is essential to the human spirit; that none of us is free until all of us are free. Because that’s what humans do. We are meaning makers. And, specifically, that’s what we Jews do: We see the world and ourselves through the lens of the eternal Jewish question: What does God want of me, now?

Rabbi Michael Swarttz, Beth Tikvah Synagogue, Westborough

The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, comes from the root “tzar,” which means “narrow.” In effect, Mitzrayim means “the narrow places,” or places of restriction and bondage. The biblical story of leaving Egypt has often been interpreted psychologically freeing ourselves from those things which constrict or hold us back. This year we are all living in Mitzrayim. Our freedom has been severely curtailed, and we are burdened with the anxiety and fear of these uncertain times.


Rabbi Marcia Plumb, Congregation Mishkan Tefila, Brookline

It is ironic that Passover could be canceled because of a plague. The biblical Israelites couldn’t work and had to stay indoors during the plagues in Egypt. They weren’t affected; only the Egyptians were. But now, no one is spared. This plague is the great equalizer.

At Passover, we celebrate our freedom. But no one will be free at Passover this year. The Seder ends with the saying, “Next year in Jerusalem,” which symbolically means: Next year may all be free and have what they need. This year, our prayers will not be symbolic. This year we may end our Zoom congregational Seder with: “Next month, may all humankind be free from fear and illness.”