Reflections on a mid-pandemic Passover

Sarah Cooper
Second-year student Sarah Cooper

By Abby Weingarten

Passover is an annual reminder of resilience and empathy—a sacred holiday commemorating the exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt.

This year, the event (with its emphasis on the 10 plagues) resonates with celebrants on another level, as humans are in the midst a pandemic that is testing the human spirit. What lessons can we learn from Passover (which started on April 8 and ends Thursday) as we navigate the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak?

Sarah Cooper, a second-year New College student with a religion area of concentration (AOC) and a focus on Judaic studies, has been reflecting deeply on this topic.

“One of the reasons it is so difficult to comprehend what is happening around the world is that there is no moral reason as to why this virus exists; viruses just exist and evolve,” said Cooper, adding that many people are hosting virtual seders this year due to social distancing guidelines. “However, I can’t help but see the connections between the Exodus narrative and the extent to which this virus has harmed people.”

This is especially true in areas like the United States, which has surpassed other countries in reported COVID-19 cases, Cooper explained.

“The U.S. had so many chances to minimize the spread of this virus, and yet the Trump administration fired the U.S. pandemic response team in 2018, repeatedly ignored the warnings of U.S. intelligence agencies, and has denied aid to governors of certain states,” Cooper said. “After this, it is hard not to make the connections between the biblical Pharaoh and the leader of the United States, in that both were warned of the impending plagues that would impact their people if they did not act, and their people suffered or are suffering greatly as a result of it.”

When the 10 plagues are recited at a seder, every person at the table is expected to spill some of the wine or grape juice from their cup for multiple reasons. Some say that it is to avoid ingesting the negativity of the plagues as they are recited. Others argue that it is to diminish some joy because freedom at the expense of others’ suffering should not be celebrated, Cooper explained.

“I think this points to our collective responsibility to ensure the least suffering possible during this time—and that perseverance should not simply apply to the individual’s ability to get through this but also to what we can do to make sure our neighbors are supported properly,” Cooper said. “This includes sheltering at home, not hoarding unnecessary amounts of goods, not crossing picket lines, donating to GoFundMe campaigns, and not buying items with WIC shelf tags unless you need to.”

In addition to altering negative behaviors, people can also learn spiritual lessons from the ancient story of Passover and incorporate that wisdom into modern life.

“I haven’t stopped thinking about the Jewish principle of Pikuach Nefesh, that the saving or preservation of a life overrides every other obligation because every life is inherently valuable. I think this is something crucial we should be keeping in mind,” Cooper said. “We’re also all at risk here in one way or another. No one can simply put lamb’s blood over their door and be spared from this virus, which is why it’s so important for each person to do their part. And those in positions of power are required to do everything in their power to ensure the least suffering of their people—and of every people.”

Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.

Located in Sarasota, New College of Florida has educated intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement since its founding in 1960. As the State of Florida’s designated honors college, New College provides an exceptional education that transforms students’ intellectual curiosity into personal accomplishment. The 110-acre campus on Sarasota Bay is home to more than 700 students and 80 full-time faculty engaged in interdisciplinary research and collaborative learning. New College offers nearly 40 areas of concentration for undergraduates and a master’s degree program in Data Science.

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