The World as It Is: : Coronavirus has forced me, like many people, to change my exercise routines. Instead of a half hour on the elliptical, I’m taking hour-long walks in the neighborhood. Sad as I was to give up the gym, I’m finding great pleasure in the walks. I have always loved springtime, and there’s the most magnificent quartet of large hydrangea trees, all fully in bloom, along my route. Often, I find myself struggling to reconcile the visible natural world, so pointedly alive this time of year, with the invisible natural world, so toxic to our lives now.
The very best moment of any of these daily walks came last week. My walk takes me past several congregants’ homes, but I hadn’t run into any until the day that my path crossed with a congregant, around my age, and his aging father, who has rather advanced dementia. He’s moving slowly, using a walker. Nevertheless, father and son were walking to the end of the street to have a look at the magnificent tulips in bloom at the corner.
In this most difficult moment in America, and in the personal life of their family, father and son together created a beautiful moment.
Judaism offers blessings for everything. One that may be unfamiliar is the blessing for seeing something particularly stunning in nature, be that a uniquely handsome person or a magnificent landscape. The words of that blessing, though, don’t express that purpose as obviously as they might: Baruch Atah, Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, shekacha lo b’olamo, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, for this is how it is in the world.”
While the blessing is intended to recognize beauty, its words suggest acceptance. We praise God for making the world as it is—with the bitter and the sweet, the devastating pandemic and the unwelcome opportunity for personal growth, the debilitating illness and the drive to continue appreciating life, the loss of life-sustaining employment and the personal reinvention that may emerge. The horrors of dementia and the beauty of the tulips.
Passover asks us to do exactly that.
Matzah is known to most of us as “the bread of freedom.” Yes, it’s true: Torah tells us that our ancestors had no time to let the bread rise as they were escaping Egyptian bondage . Paradoxically, though, matzah is also “the bread of affliction, the poor bread, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt . After all, slaves aren’t given time for the luxury of giving their bread the time to rise.
When I ask people, “What does the matzah represent,” the answer is almost always the same: I hear the story about leaving Egypt in haste. I almost never hear the quotation we read each year at Seder, “the poor bread.” Perhaps that’s because we wish to accentuate the positive. I wonder, though, if it’s a reluctance to accept the world as it is, warts and all.
The Seder ritual is full of such symbols. We eat the bitter herb together with the sweet charoset, reminding us that one must taste the bitterness of bondage before finding sweetness in liberation. We behold a roasted egg, symbol of the Jerusalem Temple, burned to the ground with a fire so hot that even its stones walls exploded. The Temple in ruins is Judaism’s symbol for the reality that we live in an imperfect, unredeemed world. The world as it is, as God created it, is filled with poverty and injustice—even slavery, with human beings trafficked like commodities for free labor or worse, for unwilling prostitution. And God knows, this unredeemed world today includes a devastating pandemic and the hardships of mass unemployment that accompany it.
Our Seder also invites us to open the door to Elijah—that is, to the prospect of redemption, of a better world to come. A custom that many of us have adopted is not to fill Elijah’s cup in advance, but to ask every participant at the Seder to fill that cup, symbolizing our collective responsibility to bring redemption. This year, we’ll have to do that in much smaller groups or even virtually, but the symbolism remains powerful. We can make the world better, even in this difficult time.
We are livestreaming worship services from the homes of clergy and volunteers. Yes, we miss being together—and even the inspiration of bringing our Sanctuary into our homes, which we have enjoyed in the last few weeks. More importantly, though, we will better protect ourselves from the virus and model the most important step that everybody can take to stay well: Stay home.
Some of us can volunteer in ways that lighten the burden for others. I’m grateful to be part of an effort by the congregation I serve, our city, and the Clinton Foundation, to feed families in need during this crisis.
I do not know why this world is as it is, with all its beauty and splendor, with all its cruelty and devastation. I do know that we must all do our part to enhance the service and caring, to soften the meanness and suffering. And even during these most difficult days and weeks that will stretch into months and perhaps even years, let us praise God for creating the world as it is.
Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. A member of the CCAR Board, he is the editor of The Mussar Torah Commentary, CCAR Press, 2020.