Pesach, Faith and COVID-19 | Aleph Beta

Pesach, Faith and COVID-19

A New Audio Reflection on “The Exodus and Its Miracles; the Exodus and Its Lies”


Daniel Loewenstein


Preparing for Pesach in the middle of a global health crisis raises a lot of big questions. What message can we learn from the story of the Exodus that speaks to our current situation? What spiritual strength might we draw from the holiday to help us through this time?

We don’t believe that these are  answerable questions. The meaning of Pesach transcends any single interpretation or time, and the meaning of our current situation is, ultimately, beyond our grasps. But what we can do is reflect on the eternal truths that Pesach highlights and glean from these some guidance and, perhaps, some comfort. 

In this audio reflection, Daniel and Ami re-visit Rabbi Fohrman’s course “The Exodus and Its Miracles; the Exodus and Its Lies”, in which Rabbi Fohrman argues that the signs and miracles of the Exodus story don’t just demonstrate a powerful God, but an empathetic one. Building off this key point, Daniel and Ami share how this idea of faith speaks to them in light of the isolation, fear and uncertainty we’re all going through, and how this idea can help us prepare spiritually for Pesach--especially this year.


Daniel:  Hi everybody. We hope that you're having a mildly unstressful time preparing for Pesach in these crazy times. I'm Daniel Lowenstein. 

Ami:  And I'm Ami Silver. 

Daniel:  We'd like to take some time to share some Aleph Beta thoughts for the crazy times we're living in. 

Ami:  So one thing we've been talking about here is, you know we've been sharing some of our Passover videos with our listeners. All of us are, obviously along with coping with everything that we're dealing with personally and globally, we're also on our way to Pesach. It's around the corner. We've been going over some of our older Passover content and looking at it through new eyes. How does this speak to our realities and experiences of today? 

Daniel and I were feeling that this course in particular we're going to discuss, and some of our other material, it really speaks pretty profoundly to how we're dealing with things right now and what we're experiencing right now. 

Daniel:  The course that Ami is referring to is a really, really powerful course in Aleph Beta called, the Exodus and its miracles the Exodus and it's lies.  You don't need to have watched that course in order to follow along with us today, but we definitely recommend it.  It's really incredible and it's very powerful.

Just one note that I wanted to mention before we dive in is also that I think Imu sent out a very powerful and important e-mail a little while ago, just reminding everybody that even though we are trying to make sense of the meaning of Pesach this year in light of everything we're going through, Pesach also is a timeless holiday with important messages that go beyond any one particular thing that we're dealing with in a particular time. So just because Ami and I found ourselves having some reflections about Pesach that do speak to the times and how to think about it, don't feel pressured to make your Pesach about COVID 19 this year. Pesach can be experienced on its own terms. So one little caveat before we dive in and actually do try to relate it to the times. 

Ami:  Okay. So just to make sure that we're all caught up here I'll offer a brief summary. As Daniel said, if you have the time watch some of this course even to pick up pieces of it. You'll certainly get a lot out of it. Here Rabbi Fohrman is exploring the three signs that God initially gives Moses all the way at the beginning of the Exodus story at the Burning Bush. 

If you recall, Moses is there negotiating with God. One of the things Moses says is, I'm going to come to these people and they're not going to believe me. They're not going to believe me that You've sent me on this mission to take them out of Egypt. God says, well, I'm going to give you three signs, an ot in Hebrew. The first sign is Moses take your staff, throw it onto the ground and it turns into a snake and Moses kind of recoils. Then God says, pick up the snake. Moses picks it up and there it goes, the snake turns back into a staff.

The next sign is, put your hand into your breast, into your chest, and pull it out and it turns white like a leper. Then God says, and now put your hand back and the skin is restored. Then God says to Moses, you know if they don't listen to the first sign, if they don't listen to the second sign, here's what you should do, Moses. Take some water, pour it onto the ground and it's going to turn into blood. Then they'll certainly believe you. Moses goes and does this and lo and behold the people believe him.

Something that Rabbi Fohrman points out is just how strange and absurd this all seems. Moses says to God, they're not going to believe. Then God shows him what seemed to be these small little miracles. Is this a parlour trick? Is this supposed to somehow convince the people, look I can do these fancy things so believe me that this is from God. Rabbi Fohrman even goes further to say, when Moses appears before Pharaoh, Pharaoh's own sorcerers can replicate the signs that Moses does. They also throw their staffs onto the ground. They can also turn water into blood. So if these are supposed to be these tricks of this great and mighty God, they're not even such great tricks. 

So Rabbi Fohrman says that really the faith that we're speaking about here is not simply, no, trust me there is a God and this God spoke to me. Or no, trust me this is a Divine mission that I’m on. But that the faith is actually more subtle than that. It's more about who God is and what God's particular message is to the Children of Israel. This is reflected in the words themselves when the people in fact witness Moses do these signs for them and then believe. It says, "va'ya'mein ha'am," the nation believed, but what did they believe? They listened to Moses' words because, "ki pakad Hashem et Bnei Yisrael v'chi ra'a et einam." Which means they believed that God was in fact coming to redeem them and had seen their suffering. 

Here the whole narrative takes on a very different meaning because the Exodus story is not merely about people who are in a terrible situation and they were then released from. But there's also a central core element here of God seeing what they've been going through and empathizing with them. Then showing them, here I am, God. I am the God who sees your suffering and responds to that. 

Daniel:  Right. I think the thrust of how that argument plays into the three signs is that the three signs are actually three illusions to the horrors that the Israelites faced when they were in Egypt. The water turning into blood was actually a way of showing the people that even though the Egyptians tried to hide the blood of the Israelite babies under the water, he was turning the water back into blood. He was revealing the hidden atrocity that was being done to the Israelites. 

Similarly, with the snake. The snake was this creepy crawly thing that people recoil from. The Israelites, similarly, are described in the beginning of the Book of Exodus as being perceived by the Egyptians as this sort of subhuman group of people that was replicating and swarming, almost like bugs or rodents. 

Ami:  Right. The Egyptians, "vakutzu mipnei Bnei Yisrael," means they were absolutely disgusted by them. As if recoiling from them. 

Daniel:  The power of the signs was actually not God showing He could do powerful tricks or miracles. The point is that God was showing that He actually saw and understood the pain that people were going through and that He was going to redeem it. That is a much more powerful way to send a message to the Israelites about their redemption than just to say, hey, I’m really powerful or I can do cool things. 

Ami:  Exactly. That itself is a game changer. To begin to see the plagues is not only a punishment that God is meting out upon the Egyptians but that there's actually a communication, a message, to the Children of Israel themselves. The depth of your suffering and your invisible pain that you're going through, that you've been going through this whole time, I see that. 

Just to give you one example, Daniel kind of references it, but just to kind of flush it out a little bit more. What was the experience of the Israelites when they see that the Nile was turned to blood? The atrocity that the Egyptians committed was taking their babies and throwing them into them into the water. You look at that water and it's like nothing ever happened. The river looks the same from day to day, if anything sinks to the bottom, but the loss of life there that's so devastating, it's as if it's completely invisible. When God transforms that to blood God is exposing, not only the terrible cruelty of Egypt but also at the very same time showing to Israel, I see everything you've been going through. There's no more hiding. There's no more hiding the truth of your pain. 

Daniel:  Definitely, if you get a chance, the ways of the other illusions play out and they way they get redeemed are incredible to watch when you see the whole course together. So, again, if you have time, definitely take a look at that. 

Ami, you and I were taking a little bit earlier about how that message of God seeing people's suffering, knowing about it and giving this message that it's clear to Him; that He's with you in it and He's going to redeem you. That's a really powerful thing to take out. Not just in general but also specifically to the times we're in right now. 

Ami:  You know something that I was reflecting on is whenever we're suffering, under whatever kind of circumstances, there's the external thing that's causing us pain. There are external causes that have very objective external affects to them. Then there's also beneath that, the subjective experience which is often times very isolating and lonely. It's as if to feel like, this terrible thing is happening and I'm doing everything I can to get through it and to cope with it. Then beneath that there's me in this kind of pit of loneliness.  How am I suffering on my own through this? In our situation part of the external thing we're dealing with, part of the very tangible thing we're dealing with, is that we're living in isolation. 

For those of us with families or with partners of roommates, or who live with parents or what have you, so we're in isolation and also with others. Then there are those who are completely living by themselves in the four walls of their home. But regardless of what degree of how many people you're physically in contact with over the course of the day, our sense of social existence, our sense of normalcy as the social beings that we are, has been cut off. Or in a sense has been deeply transformed.

Here we are, quote unquote, we're talking to each other, we're sitting in a Zoom room together, but there's a world of difference between actually being able to live, breathe, speak, hug with other people and then to be isolated. So here, tangibly, both externally and internally, isolation is part of what we're dealing with. 

Daniel:  Ami, obviously, the isolation affects a lot of things not just the sense of separation that we have from people in general and also a lack of a sense of normalcy. But also even if people are sick, and a lot of people are sick and suffering. I think a lot of us at this point know someone who's died. Just the inability to just physically be present to help people or to comfort people, or even just actually physically being sick, which is the external thing you were talking about. There are a lot of different ways that the current times we are living in are affecting us in powerful internal ways. 

Ami:  So given all of this, and on any level of disruption and pain and suffering we're going through, this fundamental element of the Exodus, which is "ra'u ra'iti et ani ami," the thing that God says to Moses at the Burning Bush. The thing that God is basically communicating to Israel and communicating to us through the story of the Exodus is I see you in your pain. I'm bearing witness to your suffering. 

That to me is like, if we're dealing with things that are beyond our control right now, and maybe right now the situation of Corona virus of the illness and the steps we need to take to both protect ourselves and take preventative measures as a society against it, that's playing it's course. Is there a way that we ourselves can feel somebody sees me even in this. Somebody sees me as I am dealing with these difficulties right now.

Daniel:  Ami, what you're saying reminds me of this really fascinating interpretation that Maimonides has of a kind of very puzzling law in the Bible which is about the laws of accidental murder. If someone murders someone else there's a stated punishment for that but there are certain negligent homicides, accidental murders, that could have been prevented with just a little bit more diligence. So then the law is the accidental murderer has to run away to exile. Lest a relative of the person who was killed chased the person down and kill him in revenge. 

One of the strange laws in that section of the Bible has to do with the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol. The law states that the accidental murderer has to stay in exile, in a city of refuge, until the death of the current High Priest. When the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol, dies then he's free to leave and there's no more concern that the relative of the deceased is going to track him down and kill him. He's not "allowed to any more". Which is a very strange law. What does the High Priest have to do with anything? 

So what Maimonides claims is that psychologically when a relative dies, there's a certain kind of psychological reality that we have to face. That is relatives may be out for blood. The best way to handle it is to have the person who committed the accidental murder run away to exile, avoid the relative who may be seeking vengeance. If a person is sort of tucked away somewhere faraway we can expect, psychologically, that a normal healthy relative their blood will be boiling enough. They're going to have to chase the guy down once he's already out of their sight forever. 

The really novel part of his interpretation of the High Priest bit is that he said, since the High Priest is such a beloved figure in the Jewish nation, when he dies everyone in the country is mourning. Everyone in the country is experiencing a profound sense of loss. What Maimonides argues is that there's an incredible powerful cathartic and comforting effect in knowing that other people understand what you're going through and what you feel. Because the High Priest was so beloved by everyone, everyone in the whole country is mourning this unbelievable tragedy and because of that the calming effect of knowing that other people are also feeling the pain of loss has on the relatives of the deceased will actually get him to a psychological state where he won't feel his blood boiling and need to chase after the murderer anymore. 

The reason I’m reminded of that interpretation of Maimonides is number one, because I think we can all take solace in the fact that all the crazy things we're experiencing we're all experiencing together and other people understand what we're going through.  More specifically related to Passover and to the insight that we were discussing from Rabbi Fohrman is that God also knows what we're going through and sees what we're going through. That's a very powerful message coming out of Passover and that carries through to other times in history and it carries through to now. 

That's also a way to take comfort. Not just knowing that other people know what we're going through, then the validation and the catharsis and the comfort that comes from that, but actually also knowing that God, Himself, is also with us in our pain and understanding our pain. That has a really strong potential, I believe, to provide an incredible amount of comfort as we're going through all of the craziness we're going through. 

Ami:  What strikes me here, Daniel, is in this situation and I see this also kind of an analogist to what you're saying about the city of refuge kind of scenario, in that case nobody can bring back the one who's lost but there is some kind of shared human experience where people sense that we are all bound in some kind of empathic understanding together. The way I see that kind of relaying over to our current situation is even if, again, we're all continuing day to day to struggle in the ways that each one of us is struggling. Some to great degrees, some less so, every person in different areas of their lives. If we can sense that there isn't compassion that's being held out for me right now, a compassion that whether it's divine compassion or, honestly, even if I get a phone call from a friend who's checking in on me because they want to know how I'm doing today. Feeling cared for is a kind of medicine that can help keep us intact and keep us afloat even as our objective scenario is still quite scary and threatening. 

It doesn't take away what we're going through but it does provide some kind of deep self to the internal suffering that we're going through. I just want to also kind of relate back to something that Daniel, you had mentioned when we were referring back to Rabbi Fohrman's discussion there, that story of Egypt basically dehumanizing the Israelites. Basically saying that you're these swarming pests, these creepy crawlers, and therefore we can do to you whatever we wish without blinking an eye. So part of was developed through this course is that the Exodus was a restoration of our humanity. 

Was God basically saying, no, I see you in your humanity. In the inherent honor and nobility that you possess. You do not deserve to be treated this way. You do not deserve to have gone through that and I'm here to affirm that for you. So part of what's just been so powerful for me, or even just been one of the basic things that I have to rely on these days, is that sense of humanity that we can share. 

It's really just taking some time to reach out to a friend. Like the conversation with friends across oceans, across our various life situations, just checking in because on such a basic simple fundamental level we care. Feeling that care also turned towards me. It allows us to keep a sense of, not only sanity, but a sense of humanity and integrity to our lives intact even as I still face all of this. From that itself that's kind of a resilience that we can begin to continue to develop and hold on to and to give to one another during these times.

Daniel:  Absolutely Ami. You were talking about the restoration of a sense of humanity and of dignity and nobility and it sort of just takes me to the Seder. All the things we do symbolically to show that we are free and the clothes we wear and the food we serve. Based on what you're saying, I imagine a real power in leaning into that extra hard this year and saying, you know, whatever way my life has been disrupted, whatever way everything's been turned upside down, I'm going to take tonight, which is a night that celebrates the restoration of dignity and humanity of people and I'm going to own that. I'm going to say, I’m a dignified and noble person tonight. I imagine that can be a really powerful way to experience in things that we just sort of don't want to blink at on a regular year. 

Ami:  Yeah. I'll say something that this is a disclaimer. This is my, Ami Silver's, personal takeaway from Rabbi Fohrman's course. I don't think he -- he did not say this explicitly, but he spoke about faith. Remember Moses saying they're not going to believe me, and the people do believe when Moses shows them the signs. Then all the way later at the Splitting of the Sea, once again, "vaya'aminu b'Hashem u'Moshe," that the people had emunah

Rabbi Fohrman was casting the faith experiences in the story as in a sense being the product of the people feeling their full humanity restored to them by God. Right? At the signs. Moses shows them, communicates in these sort of non-verbal ways, God's message to them. It's like I see the depths of your suffering and I'm here to help you. Then they could have emunah. "Ki pakad Hashem et Yisrael," that God is there to redeem them. Pakad, also means, God has remembered them. God didn't actually forget them. 

So part of the take away for me from that is sometimes we have these struggles of faith where we're experiencing difficulty. It's like that itself puts us into some crisis like, where is God? Is God here? Is God helping me? Is God not helping me? Is God abandoning me? What have you? Part of the takeaway for me from this course is, is it possible to have the kind of faith that is being spoken about in the Exodus story? It actually requires something beforehand, which is to get in touch with my humanity. Which is to get in touch with, in a sense, my inherent sense of value. 

That really doesn't depend on my external circumstances. It exists despite, and in the face of whatever it is that I'm facing. That stuff is all here right now but if I can get in touch with my sense of the dignity in just being alive here right now. The dignity in who I am at my core. So that, actually is what I took from the video, can be the grounds for my sense of faith. 

Sometimes I need that, I need to feel an intact integral sense of self, or even a memory of that in order to then feel once again, oh yes, there is more here to my life. Or yes, there is meaning here in my life in these moments. There is God here with me in these moments. But in a sense there's a foundation of just coming back to self. I'm just relating that based on what you're saying about the Seder. It's like whatever situation I'm in when the night of Seder comes along, and this has been the case throughout Jewish history, whatever situation we find ourselves in on that night, we continue to proclaim our freedom. Right? 

We may be under inquisition, under pogroms facing threat and health crisis. Whatever situation we find ourselves in we are being invited, and in a sense, being brought into a series of actions and states and statements throughout the night over and over again. It's just repeating our sense of dignity and really acting like we're royal for these moments. 

Daniel:  Yeah. I think that these thoughts stemming from the analysis of Pesach and what God was saying to us are going to have a major impact on how I experience a lot of the rituals of the Seder. Definitely, when we get up to the part of Magid where we say, "Vaya'ar et anyeinu v'et almeinu v'et lachatzeinu," that it's going to feel very different for me this year. Listeners, we hope that this also helps your Seder feel different and more meaningful in these times also. 

Ami, thank you so much for talking these things out with me. It's really powerful and helpful for these times. 

Ami:  It's good to be in the room with you, so to speak, Daniel. To get to prepare, prepare is a funny word these days, it's hard to plan ahead. It's hard to plan beyond a couple of hours but here we are heading towards Pesach in whatever degree of readiness we're at. So it's good to have this chance to just reflect on some of these ideas with you.

Daniel:  Thank you all so much for listening. We hope you have a happy and a healthy holiday. We would love to hear from you your thoughts and anything you would want to share that would be helpful for anybody else. All the best everyone. Stay safe and stay healthy. Chag Kosher V'same'ach.

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