Sundown Wednesday marks the start of Passover, the Jewish holiday commemorating the Israelites’ liberation from slavery following a series of plagues inflicted upon their Egyptian captors.
Lots of plagues. Ten, to be exact.
The centerpiece of Passover is the Seder, the ritualistic dinner which helps to retell the Exodus story. During Seder, places at the dinner table are occupied by family, friends and even strangers.
Not this year. The COVID-19 pandemic has put an end to such gatherings.
"One of the funniest things being posted on Facebook for the Jewish community is who would have believed that Pesach (Passover) would be canceled by a plague," said retired Temple Israel (Canton) Rabbi Jon Adland.
Adland noted that under normal circumstances, he and his wife, Sandy, host more than a dozen guests.
"This will be a strange Pesach this year without a community of family and friends surrounding Sandy and me at our table," he said. "Seder will seem kind of lonely as community is such a vital part of the Pesach."
Adland said they plan to conduct a "virtual Seder" through Zoom, adding that it will be an abbreviated version of the traditional dinner.
"We invited all the people who should have been with us and some siblings as well," Adland said. ".... so there may be 20. In the end we are making lemonade out of lemons, or matsah balls out of matsah."
Rabbi John Spitzer, Temple Israel’s rabbi emeritus, said Passover offers a universal message of freedom.
"The Seder meal with its rituals remembers and relives redemption in every generation," he said. "The Passover Haggadah contains these words: 'And you shall tell your child on that day, saying, 'It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went forth from Egypt.’"
The Haggadah is a booklet used during the Seder to recount the story of the Passover, as well as lessons and teachings from the Book of Exodus.
"These words suggest that more than just remembering what happened more than 3,000 year ago, I am actually a participant... I was redeemed from brutal slavery."
Spitzer, founder of the Lifelong Learning Institute at Walsh University in North Canton, also volunteers as a Jewish chaplain for the Mansfield Correctional Institution.
Last year, he transported a Seder meal to the prison prepared by the Temple Sisterhood. Members of the Temple Brotherhood presented the Seder for the inmates.
"Their gratitude was amazing because, even behind bars, the story of God’s liberation of the Hebrews transformed and liberated them as well," he recalled. "I have reflected upon this lesson a great deal over these past months. It is more than a message of the effectiveness of a book of prayers, a generations-old ritual and a delicious meal. We are not redeemed by prayers alone or by rituals and festivities. Our liberation is so much more than physical."
"From slavery to freedom"
"As to the spiritual aspect, there is certainly a feeling that all of us are slaves to this virus and we can't wait to be free again," Adland said. "Pesach is an emotional experience as you’re going from slavery to freedom as the text elevates you higher and higher."
"Whether it is Passover for Jews, Easter for Christians or Ramadan for Muslims, redemption is deeper than walking free of oppression," Spitzer said. "In truth, like the inmates in MANCI, we are all incarcerated; imprisoned by life’s circumstances, economics, illness, age and the like."
Spitzer said the central lesson of Passover is that redemption is a mental and spiritual state of mind.
"Redemption is of the soul," he said. "May each of us, Jews, Christians, Muslims and others be able to say in our hearts, 'It is because of what God did for me when I went forth... from the bondage of my life.’"