In the midst of this dark time in our global community, the spring blooms and some of the most treasured religious celebrations in Judaism and Christianity begin. Our Jewish faith embraces Passover, highlighted by a vibrant, festive communal meal called a Seder, where we tell the story of how our ancestors, the Israelites, left behind a life of enslavement in Egypt and journeyed forth through danger toward physical and spiritual freedom.
On Wednesday, our families celebrated the most unusual Seders of our lifetimes (each of us sitting with just the members of our own households), while other Jews welcomed the holiday literally alone, or in virtual community with smiles and tears on small video screens. We recognize the deep emotional and even public irony in telling the grand story of the Exodus — that is, of a “going out” — at a time when we are almost universally feeling constrained, isolated, alone and anything but free.
It is precisely at this moment when Passover offers many values that feel universal and relevant. At a time when society hungers for moral grounding as well as physical safety, we — as a a religious leader and a public official — both take comfort in the guidance offered by our tradition, and we share some of these messages in the hopes that they may offer meaning to others as well:
• We Were Once Slaves in the Land of Egypt: The Passover story begins by recounting the oppression of our ancestors. The fact that “we were once slaves in the land of Egypt” is intended to sensitize us to the oppression of all, in every age. We are reminded of the infinite value of each and every human life, which gives us an imperative to protect everyone. Right now, that means that we must care about vulnerable community members. We must care about those who continue to keep the rest of us safe, healthy and fed. We care about those who are imprisoned, those who live in shelters and those who are unsheltered, those who live close and those in countries far away. The pandemic and the Exodus narrative both drive home the sense that we are all in this together. If anyone isn’t safe, none of us is truly safe, and if anyone isn’t free, none of us is truly free.
• Opportunity to Bend the Curve: The story of the Exodus also offers hope, that even the harshest oppression can give way quickly to freedom and opportunity. The story’s narrative arc trends upward. We tell this story in the spring, when buds, flowers and shoots remind us of the potential that’s always present in our world. Opening the door to welcome the prophet Elijah during our Seder meal symbolizes our welcome of a better, more just and compassionate society. Our spiritual tradition promises that redemption always lies just around the corner, and it is up to us to “bend the arc” toward justice and, in today’s case, to help “bend the curve,” too.
• The Hillel Sandwich Dilemma: Good religious ritual isn’t oversimplified but rather gives us opportunity to reside in the complexity of our world. At the Seder, we eat bitter herbs (often horseradish) together with sweet charoset (a “mortar” made of fruit and nuts) in a special sandwich, symbolizing that in every moment in time, there is both bitterness and sweetness. For today, this means permission to grieve the losses — illness and loss of life, financial stress and missed opportunities — and also to embrace the unexpected sweetness that has come with beautiful spring days, creative uses of technology, environmental benefits to our planet and the potential for a more just society to emerge as we rebuild when we reach the other side of this pandemic.
• Let My People Go — Moses’ Brave Leadership Lesson: Finally, the Passover story draws a stark contrast between leadership styles. On the one hand, we read of Pharaoh’s tyrannical rule, at once paranoid, egocentric, and greed-driven. On the other hand, we see Moses’ profound humility, his delivery of clear and direct positions in the public interest. We need our public leaders right now to rise up to meet this moment and embody the strength, moral dignity and respect of servant leadership as embodied by Moses.
In our time, this means displaying sophistication and depth about science, data, evidence and facts, and valuing the dignity of the public interest in our constitutional republic and representative democracy itself. Moral, public and business leadership matters more than ever during times of crisis. We need to assume the best intent in our public leaders but hold them to high standards as they advance values-based ideas on behalf of our broader community.
This is a time for servant leadership from business, government, religious and community leaders. In this journey together, we believe that one day soon we will all enjoy the spring of renewal together.