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The Promise of Passover, in an Age of Coronavirus
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The Promise of Passover, in an Age of Coronavirus

Seder Plate
Seder Plate

In my favorite scene from the Disney classic “Mary Poppins,” Mary has just taken up her post as the Banks family’s nanny and is setting up her room in the nursery. One by one, she pulls items out of her carpetbag — a hat stand, floor lamp, houseplant and large mirror — while her young charges look on in amazement. Impossible, the children think, their mouths agape. Those things are too big to fit in there!

Mary is quick to caution them, “Never judge things by their appearance. Even carpetbags.”

As a child, I was fascinated with Mary’s bottomless tote and would come to associate it with a narrow closet in my grandparents’ bedroom. The closet held more than seemed spatially possible, a mysterious capacity that still makes me smile whenever I think of it, especially in the weeks leading up to Passover.

Seders with my grandparents are among my most magical childhood memories. But watching my grandmother take worn corrugated boxes filled with Passover pots and pans out from the back of her closet was a wonderful moment all its own. As quotidian as the process was, it ensured me of her fortitude and devotion to our family. And it helped shape my Jewish identity, showing me that connecting with God through ritual is hard work and that the payoff is worth it.

I’d stare in astonishment as she dragged the boxes across the carpeted floor, letting me help her once I was old enough. I knew the effort meant knaidlach and chicken soup and her signature matzah farfel candy on seder night. Still, I was left to wonder if the closet was bigger than it appeared, like an optical illusion in a mirrored arcade. How else could I explain why all the boxes fit into the cramped space? Then again, we were in the month between the miracles of Purim and Passover. Really, anything was possible.

On Purim, we celebrate the divine intervention that saved the Jews of Persia from Haman’s murderous plot. Yet God, who is front and center in the narrative of the Jewish people — His name appears endlessly throughout the Hebrew Bible — is never explicitly mentioned in the Book of Esther. Instead, as we do in the world, we must find Him pulling the strings behind the scenes, His majesty somehow fitting into the tiny spaces between the lines and letters on the pages of the megillah.

On Passover, however, we don’t have to look so closely. God is everywhere in the Haggadah, uncontained, blazing out into the open. In the drama of the plagues. In His outstretched hand leading us out of Egypt. And, of course, in the mouth-dropping splitting of the sea.

What, though, of those liminal weeks between Purim and Passover? They are a short window in which we celebrate no particular miracle, a spiritual lull that lacks the stature of the holidays that bookend it. Our days are defined by our holiday preparations — the cooking, cleaning, and shopping. Time races ahead as the first seder deadline looms.

And yet, for me, this season usually feels bigger, more meaningful, than it looks at first glance. Perhaps it’s because I’m remembering my grandmother pulling those boxes out from the closet until the last time she did — to pass her Passover pots and pans along to me. But also, because anticipation defines these in-between weeks if we let it, an excitement for the moment when we’ll leave Egypt behind, letting go of whatever enslaves our souls.

Given rising anti-Semitism and global instability, that many of us are bound by our anxiety this year comes as no surprise. Covid-19 has our personal worlds shrinking, keeping us from work, school, public celebrations and Jewish communal events. Most of us are hunkering down into our daled amot, the boundaries of our personal spaces, by cancelling Passover travel plans and greeting one another from a six-foot distance in the kosher aisle at the market.

It’s hard to be filled with joyful expectation when so much is at stake. Yet even as our world contracts, isolating many of us physically, I hope we’ll remember that we still have the power to mine our circumstances for opportunities to help one another. After all, our hearts take up very little room in our bodies. But the breadth of what we can pull from them — kindness and love, faith in God and one another — is boundless.

Merri Ukraincik, a regular contributor, lives in Edison, N.J. She writes a column for the New Jersey Jewish News. Follow her at merriukraincik.com.

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