What God Needs Now: A Brief Pandemic Passover Reflection

“Once, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai was traveling out of Jerusalem. Rabbi Yehoshua was walking behind him and saw the Temple in ruins. He said, ‘Alas for us, for this place which lies in ruins was where the people Israel atoned for their sins!’ Rabban Yohanan said to him, ‘My son, do not be aggrieved, for we have another, equal, way to atone. And what is that? Loving and kind deeds. As Scripture teaches (Hosea 6:6): for I desire deeds of love and kindness, not sacrifice.’” — Avot d’Rabbi Nathan 11a

I had a really hard time the first two days of Passover. My congregation couldn’t gather as usual to celebrate, to worship, or to learn. And our Seder at home on the first night was, let’s say, not great. I felt as though I was sifting through Passover ruins rather than inhabiting, in Heschel’s words, a cathedral in time. I have always loved this holiday so much. I love it so much I wrote a book about it (have I mentioned that? 😉🔌). Not to be able to celebrate it properly — which is to say, the way I’m used to celebrating it, but also in a way that truly honors the story and enables it to come alive for me and my kids — filled me with an overwhelming sense of loss. Compounding that feeling was the crushing mix of grief, stress, frustration, anxiety, and anger I have been wrestling with since this all began. It was a lot, and it was hard.

And then this morning I rediscovered this teaching. It helped. Rabbi Yehoshua feels a significant, debilitating loss. The Holy Temple had been destroyed, and consequently, the sacrificial rites had been cancelled. The manner of religious observance he was used to — the only way of connecting to God he knew, the way he assumed was indispensable and irreplaceable — had ceased to be. Rabban Yohanan reminds him that as long as we can perform deeds of love and kindness, we can equally if not better fulfill our religious obligations.
Passover was not what I wanted it to be this year. The Seder was not what I hoped it would be. But a meaningful and joyous Seder, ultimately, is not what God requires of me, or of us. In a time of destruction, to focus on pristine ritual misses the point. The world needs our loving and kind deeds. That is the spiritual work the moment demands.
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