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It is hard to believe we are about to celebrate our third COVID Passover. But there is a lot to be hopeful about: Vaccines are widely available, the Omicron wave seems to have abated and many of us will be holding Passover seders in person with family and friends. Of course, COVID has not gone away. An average of 1,000 Americans are dying from it every day; as I write, there are reports of new virus variants—including a subvariant of Omicron—on the way. But COVID in spring 2022 looks very different from COVID in spring 2020.
And yet as mask mandates and restrictions have eased (most likely temporarily), people do not seem kinder—especially online. Influenced by social media platforms that profit when we act aggressively, people have become more strident. Every morning I steel myself before logging on to my social media accounts (whether I should be going on social media every day is another question) and scrolling through my feeds.
Maybe I am naive, but I can’t get over the constant meanness. A Facebook post lamenting the difficulties faced by a disabled child when everything is virtual is met with derision and accusations of being an anti-vax conspiracy theorist. A tweet begging people to continue taking precautions for the sake of the immunocompromised is mocked as the rantings of a hysterical hypochondriac set on keeping us trapped in the pandemic forever. And all sides are accused of being anti-science. The number of armchair epidemiologists able to bandy studies about is remarkable.
Over and over again I am struck by how almost no one is able to offer an ounce of empathy for a viewpoint that doesn’t coincide with their own. It’s as if any consideration for someone else’s opinion is equivalent to invalidating one’s own. This is not limited to COVID debates. In fact, it reminds me of the way so many people approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—a zero-sum game, where acknowledging suffering on either side is viewed as weakness. This lack of empathy has not served anyone in the Middle East well, and it won’t help lessen the damage of COVID today.
Of course, some beliefs expressed or argued online are vile and beyond the pale, but calling for empathy—recognizing that the party on the other end of a post is a real person—doesn’t necessarily require us to hold back from forceful argument, be overly polite, or treat hate speech as valid.
Have we all “hardened our hearts” à la Pharaoh in Egypt? Can we see thinking about other people’s plights as anything but a vulnerability? Some recent studies show that empathy is inherited and that there may be an “empathy gene,” but it is also a skill that can be developed over time. Passover gives us clues on how to start that process.
Throughout the seder, we are called to remember the suffering of both our ancestors and their enemies. As we list the ten plagues, we dip our fingers in red wine as a way to show that while we celebrate being free, our joy is diminished because of the suffering of our enemies. We are told that “in every generation, we are obligated to see ourselves as though we personally came out of Egypt.”
And most importantly, we are reminded over and over again that we were once slaves in Egypt. One contemporary Jewish thinker, Rabbi Shai Held, views this as a radical notion: “The Torah could have responded quite differently to the experience of oppression in Egypt. It could have said, ‘Since you were tyrannized and exploited and no one did anything to help you, you don’t owe anything to anyone; how dare anyone ask anything of you?’ But it chooses the opposite path: ‘Since you were exploited and oppressed, you must never be among the exploiters and degraders. You must remember what it feels like to be a stranger. Empathy must animate and intensify your commitment to the dignity and well-being of the weak and vulnerable.’”
The Passover content in Moment’s new spring issue reflects these values. In “Jewish Word,” senior editor George E. Johnson explains how the phrase “Next year in Jerusalem” was added to the Haggadah text in the medieval period and quickly became a way to express not only messianic yearning, but a desire for a better, brighter world. The fiction story, winner of our 2021 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Fiction Contest, explores what happens when family members with clashing beliefs sit down to celebrate a seder together. Rachel Barenblat, aka the Velveteen rabbi, reviews poet and liturgist Marcia Falk’s new Haggadah Night of Beginnings.
Plus, do you know the origin story of the orange on the seder plate? Turns out you probably don’t know the real one. Susannah Heschel, a noted academic and a pioneering Jewish feminist, originated that custom, and our new profile of her examines how the myth around it developed, as well as the misconceptions about the life and legacy of her father, philosopher and civil rights icon Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Susannah Heschel, “the rabbi’s daughter,” has become a force in her own right and is outspoken on both feminist and racial justice issues.