Here we are, in age of uncertainty and doubt when our need to know what’s happening and the ability to communicate what’s happening get all jumbled up, leaving room for fear and frustration to fill the spaces in between. Yet, spring has begun to creep into the trees; the weather and our calendars continue the steady crawl toward a new season. Passover is coming. Usually, this time is filled with excitement– a build-up of energy. We clean out our cupboards and scrub our floors – a new beginning, physically and emotionally. Yet in this moment, that energy is limited – reserved for the day to day tasks of just getting through—adjusting to working and schooling from home to managing the new normal of “distancing.” Our world seems to have been flooded with apart-ness: social-distancing, remote working, remote learning, isolation, no congregating, no touching, quarantine. How will Passover look in this era?
It strikes me that this question – one of unknowing – shares roots with the feelings of the Israelites throughout the story in the Haggadah. I imagine myself in their situation: being told, it’s time to leave all I know and to walk through the desert led by a person I’m not sure I trust. I don’t imagine that any of them felt that being slaves in Egypt was a great life at this point. We all agree that this mitzraim, this narrow place, is oppressive and scary. Yet facing, a complete revolution of time and space feels so dangerous and scary too. Yeah, I might hesitate.
Gratefully, most of us in the day to day of our lives do not feel the oppressive weight of slavery as defined in the biblical or modern era. Yet, the world we call “normal” is so filled with oppression and so driven by the “what’s mine is mine” mentality that we perpetuate inequity. We perpetuate inequity and tell ourselves tales of American Dreams and “hard work” to make ourselves feel better and to shift responsibility from “us” to… anyone else. I imagine the Israelites and certainly the Egyptians in Mitzraim had their own stories too: stories of deserving, of a natural order or even divine destiny (one people to suffer and one to flourish), of born inheritance and a foreigner’s place. Some of these might have a familiar ring for you even now.
One of the questions that often comes up around our seder table is why? Why did the plagues occur? Why ten of them? Why did there need to be such terrible violence and destruction in order to allow the Israelites to leave? Why did Pharoh’s heart become hardened over and over again? This year, I propose a theory: perhaps the plagues were not intended to convince Pharoh to “let our people go.” Perhaps the plagues were required in order for our people to want to go. This year it seems so easy to wish for the “normal” life that I remember from just two weeks ago, happy to accept the inequity of the world if it allows me to regain the comfort of my routine. Every day I wake up to see that our plague continues- highlighting all the inequities of the “old Mitzraim” – the comfortable but oppressive one. But Social, Health and Academic inequities with which we, as a society, were comfortable slowly chipping away at, now loom so large that they cast their shadow on everything.
Social Inequity created by ageism, racism, and xenophobia has been thrown into sharp relief in this age of darkness. Older adults struggle to eat for fear of going out, the meals they had survived on no longer delivered. Immigrants, who filled our hourly shift jobs risk their health to stand in long lines because their jobs can’t be “remote work environments.” Foreign travelers, international citizens whom we struggled to tolerate before are now scrutinized heavily and accusingly as if anyone of them could threaten us. In this era, our failed efforts to breakdown these disparities are everywhere, hopping and crawling over everything like frogs.
Health inequity- the difficulty to find LGBT+ competent care in rural and suburban areas, now is magnified by the few competent clinics being overwhelmed. The homeless and the poor who have received their care in the ER for years may choose not to go get what they need because of fear of COVID-19; or might be turned away because the system is overwhelmed. Those with severe mental illness, whose symptoms intensify in times of stress, will struggle without adequate access to treatment, resources to pay for medicines or open pharmacies to fill them.
The impact of Academic inequity will be felt for generations to come. Schools have closed: preschools through universities have sent students home. Some—those with internet and a device on which to access it, can have “school by screen.” Those who don’t will not. It’s as simple as that. Those students, that have the means to come home for a semester and begin again in the fall will face disappointment and frustration; but those university goers whose families worked for one or more generations to get their kid there, may not have the funds to send them for an “extra” semester.
Are we convinced? Are we willing to reject a return to “normal” and instead to rebuild a society that faces inequity head on? It will be scary, just as crossing the Sea of Reeds would have been with great walls of water on either side keeping us alert, anxious and focused. JFS has committed to that narrow walk, convinced that the slow chipping away at inequity has not been enough. We need to rebuild our approach to this. In 2020, JFS has launched a vision toward this end, Accelerating Social, Academic and Health Equity. We don’t deny that it will be hard; we assure you that we will have moments of doubt; and just like our people in the Passover story, we will likely do a bit of wandering as we make our way. Yet, JFS is committed to make the journey to a place where equity is possible. We hope you’ll join us.
By Stephanie Rohr, LICSW
JFS Family Assistance Social Worker and Manager of Inclusion Programs
As we enter into our seder celebrations tonight, JFS remembers all those who struggle to achieve equity and be seen fully. Resources below by our community partners who are working to support those hidden, struggling or oppressed.
- HIAS Haggadah
- Hidden at the Seder: Mental Health Legal Advisers Committee
- Keshet Haggadah: supporting LGBTQ inclusion