Passover and the One Year COVID-19 Pandemic Anniversary
Rabbi Ahuva Zaches
Earlier this week, a teacher was checking in with her young students before beginning their formal lesson. One student announced that he was happy because his grandparents were vaccinated, and he finally got to see them at the park yesterday! Another student wasn’t sure what the right word was to describe her feelings. She asked to see a feelings chart. “That one,” she pointed and read aloud, “I am hopeful.” She shared how her mom made her hopeful that they would all have the vaccine and get to do more normal things again soon.
Then a third student looked over the feelings chart when it was his turn to share. He looked at all of the different faces. Anyone one of them could have been his face. “Ummm, I am happy that grownups got the vaccine, but I am also sad that kids can’t get it yet. I am angry because it isn’t fair. I think I have all the feelings.” Before the teacher could respond, the second student asked if he was feeling hopeful, too. “I think so,” he said, “I hope things will be better soon. But can you be happy and sad and angry and hopeful all at the same time?”
The teacher reassured him and the other students that it was possible and even common to have a mixture of different feelings, especially during unusual times. And in a community like their class, it was totally normal if some people felt one way, while others felt another way.
Over the past year, people of all ages have been grappling with a similar variety of emotions. At the beginning of the pandemic, many people were terrified of the unknown. Experts could tell us so little about this new disease, and we weren’t all that clear on the different ways it might be transmitted. Many people also felt frustrated as their usual routines disappeared overnight. Community programs were cancelled, day cares shut down. Parents especially struggled to figure out childcare while they had to work. Some people felt relieved when they heard that we were going to be able to stay home for a week or two while flattening the curve. The stress of commuting to work each day and rushing from one activity to another had taken a toll on their physical and mental health. It was a nice break to slow down and stay home. Maybe they could use this time to try something new, like baking bread or starting a garden.
Meanwhile, many business owners felt despair as the two weeks turned into a longer and longer period without customers. Many had put their life savings into their businesses, only to see everything crumble before their eyes. Others were elated to receive loans that kept their businesses afloat and their employees on the payroll during this turbulent time. Some were angry that it was possible to make more money from unemployment benefits than from working a minimum wage job.
Others were angry and deeply grieved that they did not get to spend time with loved ones, especially if their loved ones were in a hospital or care facility for the last days of their life. They had to say their final goodbyes and I love yous over a screen. Some people have been utterly devastated by loss, especially in families where multiple loved ones died of COVID-19. Even when we can celebrate holidays together in person again, they won’t have those family members to celebrate with anymore. There will be over 500,000 empty chairs at Thanksgiving this year.
Many people have felt emotionally drained, sometimes numb, or like they are barely holding it together. Essential workers have been overwhelmed with the incredible stress of risking their lives to meet the needs of countless others. And those who serve the community in a variety of ways have been struggling to adequately support others, as they struggle with the very same challenges.
But throughout this past year, in the midst of all of these other feelings, there has been a spark of hope that could not be extinguished. We heard early on that there was no guarantee that a vaccine could be produced for this new virus. Other viruses, such as HIV, have existed for many decades and still have no vaccine. For other diseases like polio, it took many years to develop effective vaccines.
But we didn’t let these facts about other viruses stop us from trying to do something about this one. Governments, companies, and even individuals like Dolly Parton all worked together to support scientists in one of the fastest and most amazing medical feats in history. I feel like one of the ancient Israelites witnessing a mind-blowing miracle. This may as well be the sea splitting in half, as far as I am concerned.
Throughout the year, and especially now at Passover, we remember the experience of our ancestors in Egypt. The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which some have pointed out sounds like the phrase mi-tzarim, meaning “from narrow straights.” In other words, Egypt is not so much a physical location, but rather an emotional state of narrowness and confinement.
After being confined for so long and emotionally worn down by isolation and fear, we finally have our own moment, like our spiritual ancestors had, of knowing that freedom is on its way. Today, roughly one year after the pandemic began, we are much like the Israelites standing on the edge of the sea. COVID-19 is like pharaoh’s army, still pursuing us. We have still got to be careful, as people in our community continue to test positive. But we can look ahead, feel the sand under our feet, and know that a miracle will soon enable us to cross the sea into freedom. May we soon taste this sweet fruit of redemption and remember to always nourish the hope in our hearts for a better tomorrow. And let us say: Amein.