What Passover Can Teach Us During a Plague
Tonight at sundown marks the beginning of Passover, a holiday that has come to be associated with long meals and with the themes of freedom, springtime, and family. But one key value in its story, easy to lose sight of in our times but more important than ever right now, is that of radical empathy.
The theme of empathy threads through the story we tell on Passover, starting with the empathy Moses feels for a mistreated Hebrew slave and for his enslaved people — even as he is being raised as a prince in a palace. As we eat dinner, we must consider those without dinner: “Let all who are hungry, come and eat.” Those of us seated around the Seder table are encouraged to empathize across time with those in bondage. The Haggadah tells us, in an exhortation from Midrash: “In every generation, everyone is obligated to see themselves as though they personally left Egypt.” It’s clear we are not only supposed to retell the story each year, but also to imagine ourselves as freed slaves.
Importantly, we are also supposed to imagine ourselves as the Egyptians. In the section of the Haggadah that considers the plagues rained down upon the Egyptians, we are asked to empathize with the suffering of our oppressors.
Even during the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea, when the villainous Pharaoh changes his mind about freeing the slaves and tries to give chase with battalions of soldiers — only to drown when the waters converge again — we must try to empathize with the villain and his armies. According to Rabbi Yochanan in the Megilah, “God is not happy at the downfall of the wicked. . . . When the angels tried to sing songs of praise to God at the Red Sea, God silenced them: ‘My handiwork, my human creatures, are drowning in the sea and you want to sing a song of praise?’”
And the Bible tells us, “If your enemy falls, do not celebrate. If he trips, let not your heart rejoice” (Proverbs 24:17).
Radical empathy has always been a key value in the Passover story. This year, more than ever, let us practice it. Whether we are healthy or ill, we must imagine that any of us might be carrying an illness we could spread to others. We must be especially careful not to harm the most vulnerable. And challenging though it is, we need to think of everyone as deserving of empathy, whether or not they are our personal — or political — enemies.
If we can empathize with distant ancient figures we can certainly empathize with the people around us now: put ourselves in the shoes of our employees, our co-workers, our teachers, our friends, our essential workers, our healthcare professionals in the trenches. Of those sheltering in place alone. Delivering your food. Or picking up your garbage.
A lot of people have asked about what it means to mark Passover, a holiday where we recount ancient plagues, during a modern plague. The answer is empathy. This season, keep a safe physical distance from everyone you encounter but try to get closer to them mentally or spiritually, even if you disagree with them. Think about life from someone else’s point of view. Summon some compassion for all of God’s “human creatures” — for all of our fellow human creatures.