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Pesach in the Time of COVID-19

Dear Bialik Families,

This year, the world over, our Pesach Seders will be different. Of course, we will be celebrating in much smaller groups, limited to our nuclear families, and perhaps connecting with others for Zoom Seders. But I also predict some ad hoc additions to the Haggadah text. As we dip our fingers in the wine and lessen our joy by a drop for each of the plagues unleashed on the enslaving Egyptians, I suspect many of us will add an eleventh plague. “Coronavirus,” many will chant ironically, recognizing our current public health predicament as yet another plague that should be noted. 

Indeed, the coronavirus does seem a lot like some of the plagues in ancient Egypt. For many, the lice, locusts and cattle plagues will seem similar to COVID-19; all are the result of an invasion of small organisms that threaten our health and upend our lives. And, who knows, maybe there is a divine message that the coronavirus brings, just as the plagues were sent to convince Pharaoh to let the Hebrews leave Egypt. Maybe we should recognize the present-day plague as a sign that it is incumbent on us to pay more attention to stopping global warming, to strengthening our health care systems or to better supporting those less fortunate in our societies?

While others may see the similarities between the coronavirus and the various forms of vermin and pestilence that hit the ancient Egyptians, the plague that it most reminds me of is darkness. The Torah text tells us that when the plague of darkness fell on Egypt, “lo ra’u ish et achiv,” literally, “no man could see his brother.” Indeed, the impact of darkness is to separate us visually from our environment and one another. For our Bialik community, the figurative darkness of the coronavirus really has separated us from one another. We are all confined to our homes and, at our Pesach Seders, many of us will not be able to see our brothers or sisters around the holiday table. 

It probably would have helped the ancient Egyptians had they been able to turn to the Internet for help. They would have been able to connect with one another, just as we are doing today. The distance learning, the Zoom meetings, the digital Seders: these are all ways that we fight to break through the darkness and stay connected to one another. This is important for us with our extended families and friendship circles, and it is paramount for our Bialik school community. That’s why we have invested so much in Bialik OnLine, making sure our students keep learning and, even more importantly, remaining connected to their teachers and their peers. 

Even as we prepare to celebrate a holiday so rich in symbolism, I’d like to call to your attention another important Jewish symbol — the rainbow. In Genesis, after the flood, the rainbow stood for the promise of a better future, free from floods and mass destruction. It is, in effect, a symbol for the optimism of humankind. 

Today, we may be worried about the health of our loved ones and neighbours, the financial news may cause anxiety and, stuck in our homes, we may be coping with just a bit too much of that quality family time. But it is important that we remember the rainbow and the promise of a better tomorrow. We will get through this — as a society, as individuals and as a cohesive Bialik family. 

In many neighbourhoods around the city, people are drawing pictures of rainbows and taping them to their front windows. The idea is that children, taking walks outside, will engage in a scavenger hunt to spot as many rainbows as they can. My family has one in our front window and I’ve seen others on my own forays outside for fresh air and exercise. We do this as another way of maintaining social cohesion and connections, even as we must remain physically apart from one another. 

This Pesach, I encourage you all to push away the darkness of separation and put rainbows in your windows. Those rainbows are not just for the kids — they are a sign for all of us that better times are around the corner. 

Chag Same’ach!

Benjy Cohen

Head of School