Many years ago, Sister Janice of the Sisters of Notre Dame advised me to “never confuse the expression of religion with the essence of religion.” Amid Passover, Easter, and Ramadan, her words ring truer now than ever as COVID-19 makes us reassess how we celebrate these holy days.
This Passover, a computer monitor was center stage on my Seder table as our family convened via Zoom. Others livestreamed Easter services through Facebook, and Ramadan meals will be physically void of friends and extended family. Yet the teachings, meanings, and impact of religion should transcend the physical gatherings this rogue virus is preventing.
At Passover, the youngest begins the Four Questions asking, Why is this night different than all other nights? In deference to that question, I have one of my own: Why is the COVID-19 crisis different from other crises?
The answer is clear: COVID-19 impacts us all in some way. Although the pandemic has laid bare social inequities, believers, agnostics, and atheists alike are susceptible to infection. In recent weeks, famous actors, musicians, sports figures, and well-known politicians have tested positive, as have family, friends, neighbors, and medical workers on the front lines.
An opportunity to reconnect with our humanity
From celebrating Passover as a young boy with my grandparents and parents, and now with my children, I am reminded that every generation needs to see—and feel—that we ourselves were slaves in the Land of Egypt. Owning a sense of being captive and redeemed fosters empathy, a desire to express compassion for others and to act in righteous ways. It has certainly influenced how I think about giving and helping others.
History is darkened with the scars of those who were and remain enslaved and persecuted: physically, mentally, and financially, among others. I’ve had teachers who survived the horrors of Nazi Germany and others who saw signs in store windows noting “Catholics and Irish Need Not Apply.” I recall restaurants that would not admit women and witnessed the vitriol of white parents whose children’s schools were integrated. More recently, I’ve seen the rise in hate speech and violent acts against people of color, or those who practice different religions.
The Seder affords us the opportunity to think about the personal burdens we carry, individually and as a society, and what it will take to let them go. How easy is it to see another’s plight and choose not to act? Have we failed to understand what it means to be redeemed?
Eventually, this virus will be tamed. Sadly, we’ll grieve those we’ve lost. Life will return to some semblance of normal. For many, that means constantly seeking shelter and food. For others, it will be a return to experiencing the daily sting of racism and sexism.
This Passover, I pray the virus be a catalyst for removing our ambivalence to the plight of others. Even if you’ve never sat at a Seder table, I hope we remember that we’re all at the mercy of the coronavirus—and we have the courage to act and to right injustice wherever we encounter it.
In Exodus 22:20 it is written, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Let us never forget, as the Passover story reminds us, that in this day and year, we too were among those in need.
Even as we are apart from those we love, Passover, Easter and Ramadan offer us the opportunity to reset and reconnect with our humanity. May none of us squander this opportunity.
Henry Berman became Exponent Philanthropy’s CEO in 2011, previously serving as acting CEO, board member, and committee member. Through his experience as a foundation co-trustee and Exponent Philanthropy member since 2003, he brings a firsthand understanding of the needs of members to his role.