In October we dropped our daughter off for a two-week meditation retreat in the mountains near San Diego. As we walked from the parking lot to the women’s quarters, we noticed something bizarre: utter silence. The Buddhist nuns who ran the center moved alone, quietly, along neat footpaths. When one heard me talking, she tilted her head up and gave me a quick glance. Even my whisper was a scream.
There are religions set up for silence and solitude. Mine isn’t one of them. That’s what is going to make this Passover so difficult. It won’t just make this night different from all other nights. It will be different from all other Passovers, ever.
For millenniums, Jews have gathered around a table to retell the story of the Exodus, eat symbolic foods and a festive meal, sing and talk. And talk. For many families, Passover Seder is like a Berlin night club: If it’s over by 3 a.m., you did something wrong.
But this Passover, we celebrate apart.
I know the notion of gathering in communal prayer and celebration is hardly unique to Judaism. Congregational prayer in Islam, salat al-jama’ah, is preferred, though not mandated. Yes, the Gospel speaks to the power of fellowship — “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” — but it’s not a requirement.
In Judaism, communal worship is a fundamental aspect of prayer and life. No fewer than 10 people, a minyan, must be present to make a quorum for prayer. The Hebrew word for synagogue is beit Knesset, a house of assembly — as if its holiest quality is not that you will find God there, but other people. Is it any wonder that when completely secular Jews created a radical new form of settlement in pre-state Palestine, they called it a kibbutz, the Hebrew word for gathering?
That helps to explain why the novel coronavirus is sweeping so ferociously through some Orthodox neighborhoods and cities in Israel and New York. More than 95% of the residents of B’nai B’rak, just outside Tel Aviv, are haredi, deeply traditional Orthodox Jews. Nearly 40% are estimated to have the virus.
It is easy to point fingers at their irresponsible leaders, but understand how difficult it is to break, overnight, ancient rules and habits of a religion that mandates togetherness.
That impulse is especially strong on Passover. The holiday brings family and friends together not at a synagogue, but around a dining table. Perhaps that’s why it’s the one most American Jews celebrate. A 2013 Pew Research survey found that while only 23% of U.S. Jews attend services at least monthly, 70% celebrate Passover with a Seder.
Can that experience be the same when so many of us will be eating alone, or in virtual togetherness, via Temple Beth Zoom?
In Israel, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel said absolutely not. At the end of March, that body, which rules on religious law, issued a decree prohibiting the use of Zoom and other technologies to conduct the Seder.
“The loneliness is painful, and we must respond to it, perhaps even with a video conference on the eve of the holiday before it begins, but not by desecrating the holiday,” the rabbis said.
The vast majority of Jews don’t pay any attention to the Chief Rabbinate, thankfully, and Zoom we will. But those men are right about one thing.
Loneliness is painful. It is among the most debilitating conditions of modern society. And what I find so compelling about Judaism is the way it understands and tries to address that condition. All that togetherness can stress us out at times — if Jews had invented Zoom, there wouldn’t be a mute button — but we know, deep down, the alternative is worse.
Natan Sharansky, the Soviet refusenik, spent half of his nine-year sentence in the gulag under solitary confinement. Recently, he recorded some tips on how to survive isolation. One of them was to remember why you are there. In Sharansky’s case, he was fighting a “huge, global war” against Communism and anti-Semitism. Now, he said, with coronavirus, the enemy is invisible, “and whether we succeed in the battle depends on your behavior.”
Sharansky also said, “Feel your connection, and remember that you are not alone. Think about it. Feel your connection.”
That’s our job on this different night, to feel together through distance.
Perhaps not surprisingly, my daughter said something similar when we picked her up from the meditation retreat after several days. I asked her if she got lonely after hours of silence.
“Not at all,” she said. “There’s a collective energy. You’re surrounded by people coming together for something bigger than themselves.”
Jew or non-Jew, we’re all fighting something bigger than ourselves this Passover. We’re all hoping the plague spares those we love. And as separate as we all are forced to be, we have never been more united in one struggle.
And that really is different.