During this global lockdown, there were moments of heroism, and inspiring tales of virtue, qualitative and quantitative time spent with loved ones, and we may have even grown from certain aspects of the experience, but make no mistake about it, this pandemic was traumatic and in many ways some of the darkest days we have lived through. Period.
The death toll is horrific. The loss of businesses, productivity, education, incalculable. Travel, live entertainment and for so many of us, the loss of community worship. So much lost. Perhaps the greatest tragedies were the seniors cut off from their families, the grandparents unable to hug their new babies, those beautiful souls who spent their last moments in this world unable to be held by their loved ones.
Every year at Passover, we recall one of the darkest memories, Egyptian bondage, not with sweet nostalgia but bitter recollection. We literally eat bitterness at our Seder table: herbs, horseradish or bitter vegetables, to physically disgust us.
And then, through our telling of the story, we make the journey from slavery to redemption and remind ourselves never to look back with fondness for degradation. We learn to fight the impulse to turn back to the familiar, which we do, sadly, even when it was really horrific.
We perform this ritual because the Bible tells us we did exactly that. In Exodus 16, the very next chapter after the parting of the Red Sea, we read:
In the desert, the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”
How do people, after experiencing such wondrous miracles, historic redemption, look back on the slavery they just escaped and have this to say? Of course, the desert journey in front of them was difficult and fraught with uncertainty, yet how could they reframe their misery, and instead focus on the fact that, at least back in Egypt, they had food?
It teaches us a powerful lesson that the human mind not only adapts to ghastly situations but also, even more so, can be nostalgic for even the most painful moments in life.
We cannot recontextualize tragedy and make it OK. Tradition teaches, history teaches, that if we forget the past, and nostalgize misfortune, we pay the price in the future. We sometimes willingly go backward — the Israelites were prepared to do that, just steps out of Egypt, and God brought them back into line. We cannot afford to go back, either. The world hangs in the balance.
Bad things happen, and we may have even grown from the experience, but we must never lie about what the darkness is, or was. Passover is a yearly reminder that a wonderful future lies in front of us if we do the work and have faith. Moving forward takes time, rebuilding takes a whole lot of effort, but redemption and freedom are possible. With God’s help, we will get there.
— Rabbi Mark Blazer is the rabbi of Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita.