Pandemic Passover 2020: Celebrating History and Creating The Future
I have celebrated Passover many times over the years, but never have I ever celebrated Passover during a pandemic.
This is uncharted territory for every living Jew today, but it is not new for the religion as a whole. After all, Jewish history spans thousands of years and survived countless brutally infectious diseases, from the Black Plague of 1347 to the Spanish flu of 1918.
Albeit, they did not have digital technology in previous pandemics, so we are still breaking ground with the Zoom Passover Seder.*
As the Coronavirus pandemic sweeps the globe, I am retreating into the ritual, security, and wisdom of my Jewish heritage. I am developing a weekly Friday Shabbat routine as a mechanism of processing wild swings of the week.
I also needed this before the pandemic, and I was admittedly complacent. But now I really need it. When shit hits the fan, you need to pull every weapon out of your arsenal to deal with it.
For me, Shabbat — the candles, the wine, the challah — represents sanity.
In synchronistic form, Coronavirus has arisen just in time for Pesach (Passover for Hebrew). This is the perfect Jewish holiday to make sense of the times we are in, and lead our World into the future.
I prepared for Passover by attending virtual Torah classes hosted by Meor, the Orthodox Jewish program at my alma mater, University of Maryland. It’s been an incredible opportunity to reconnect with Rabbis Ari Koretzky and Zalman Goldstein and the lessons they have to share. Old messages: fascinating new perspectives (and influences on the essay you are reading right now).
I always knew Passover was an important holiday, that even the most secular of Jews still observe. I did not fully appreciate its mystical depths until only this year. I did not understand its divine symbology, or its relevance in our world today.
Passover connects the Jewish people back to our origin story, of our liberation from bondage.
As a brief TLDR: the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt under the bitter rule of Pharaoh. Moses, adopted as a baby by Pharaoh’s daughter, met God through a burning bush, where he was instructed to free the Hebrew slaves. Moses goes to Pharaoh, who denies the request. God responds with the ten plagues — frogs, lice, flies, and the like. During the final plague, God issues a devastating blow and kills the firstborn of every household, except for the homes of the Hebrews, who mark their doors with lamb blood. Thus — God “passes over” their homes and spares their firstborn.
After the fallout of the tenth plague, Pharaoh lets the Hebrews go, and they are forced to quickly prepare bread without time to let it rise in order to prepare for their departure (thus — matzah). But Pharoah changes his mind at the last second and chases after the Hebrews. The Hebrews run to the Red Sea, and are trapped and believe that it is over; they will be re-captured and sent back. Then the great miracle: God splits the Red Sed, the Hebrews pass through, and the pursuing Egyptians are swallowed into the sea when it recedes.
The Hebrews make their way into the desert, where they receive the Torah at Mount Sinai, are anointed as the chosen people, and eventually, make their way to the land of Israel.
This is our fundamental origin story. This is the saga where Hebrews became Jews, where we learned of our greater sense of responsibility to the planet and the cosmos. This was our liberation from chains into greater freedom, into greater continuity, into greater wholeness.
And so Passover represents our reconnection to our divine source. We are reminded of where we came from, the depths of suffering and shame in slavery, the overwhelming burden of the Egyptian tyranny.
Our passage out of Egypt represents our journey towards greater heights of consciousness. The Hebrews learned of their collective purpose, of their place in the world beyond simple hard labor and materiality, and achieved a transformation of identity. Divine assistance arrived at every corner, and metaphysical reality bent and twisted like never before.
Perhaps their entire perceptual senses recontextualized when the Hebrews realized that they were actually Jews.
And to this day, Jews celebrate Passover to remember who we really are.
Passage of Wisdom
Passover is the ultimate intergenerational holiday. It is a time where the family gathers around the Seder table and the elders pass their wisdom on to the youngest. The children ask the four questions (why is this night different from all other nights? etc) to receive the necessary wisdom continuously transferred through the centuries.
Many inquire about the secret of Jewish continuity over all these years. Is it the religion’s values around education? Is it resilience against anti-semitism? Or something else.
I would argue that there are many reasons, but above all — it is Jewish Identity. To this day, I can look across the entire Jewish Diaspora — from South Africa to Guatemala, from Argentina to New Zealand, and find a powerful sense of commonality with the local Jewish community. Judaism is a first-person experience, which can’t truly be understood unless you are it (the same as all ethnicities by the way).
Passover delivers the wisdom of the ages to our very youngest: here’s who you are, here’s where you came from, and here’s what you need to know about that. And more importantly, there is a fundamental mission that comes along with that package: we are headed in a direction, and someday, you are going to be piloting this ship. So you’d better get good at flying because boy, is this gonna be a wild ride.
Passover is the archetypal story of New Possibilities; despite all of the bondage and slavery, there is something much, much better coming. Liberation is possible in all possible ways. When the Jews were freed from Egypt, the Love Train left the station. This led them to an explosive peak experience that changed everything forever.
There is electricity in that message; a joie de vivre; a sense of clarity; a sense of the pieces falling into place.
Children may not understand the message at the time. But they can sense its importance. And when they get older, it clicks. Randomness becomes coherence.
I believe that Judaism survives because it is impeccable at reminding its people who they are at their essence. It contextualizes what can seem like a shallow, narrow personal existence into something that stretches expansively over the millennia.
Generations of ancestors have been hard at work over the centuries on something very important; the baton has been passed to us, and we can’t afford to drop it. This is a marathon of the millennia.
And what exactly is that they have been working on?
If we look back over the last couple of centuries, life on earth has gotten better for humans at the aggregate. Violence is on the decline. Child mortality rates are down. Extreme poverty is down. And so on.
Our scientific and techno-economic capabilities have surged exponentially. We are now capable of achieving feats that could only have been called miracles one hundred years ago.
We have become more developed as a species. Pluralism, feminism, and environmentalism are only very recent phenomena. Our human rights awareness has improved dramatically.
And yes, our existential risk and the environmental record has gotten considerably worse, but trust me, I’ll get there (this is an essay written by Jeff Pawlak after all).
None of this progress happened by accident. This wasn’t some kind of deterministic fluke, where one day we woke up and life got better. It happened because our ancestors learned, experimented and improved.
The rise from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural settlements to cities and civilizations came from human brilliance and the ability to collaborate.
If you use a smartphone every day, it is thanks to the compounded learnings and breakthroughs of countless generations before you. And it is important to be grateful to them for it.
Progress came from some kind of transcendent drive that passed down through our genetic code and through our wisdom traditions, a fire that surged through the ages. The awareness that things could be better in all ways, and it was our job to go create that. This is beyond the basic survival instincts; this represents a radiant motivation to break through and leap forward into the future.
Each generation learns from the previous ones and keeps moving forward.
Judaism carries this in its obligation of Tikkun Olam — repairing the world. In the Passover Story, God commands the Jewish people to settle and create the world to come. The revelation at Mount Sinai was physical, moral, and spiritual; it was a call to action to get moving. The Torah carries the metaphysical blueprints of how to do and be as a Jew.
Jews have relied on those blueprints since the very beginning. And when we get lost, we re-ground into the source and remember how and why to proceed.
No matter how great we think we are as individuals, we rest on the shoulders of giants. We only exist because of the compounding genius of the past. Things we take utterly for granted are in fact living miracles.
The drive to progress in life, as individuals, as families, as communities, as cities, as religions, as united humanity, is ultimately spiritual. Our unique gift as humans is our ability to look out into the future and see something better.
It’s not about where we are — it’s about where we’re going.
At its essence, Judaism is about progress and the Passover story is where this comes from. What is it that we are progressing towards? That is The Great Mystery.
Passover And Corona
We find ourselves this Passover in utterly bizarre circumstances. Our economy has frozen over. The global quarantining has massively altered human behavior, leading to wild second, third, and fourth-order effects — from obnoxious Zoom bombing to the likely collapse of the European Union.
Even for the most resilient, it is utterly perplexing. All of the models are broken, and meanwhile we can’t even go outside. We’re forced to shelter in place and limit our behaviors.
Why is this relevant to Passover?
Corona is a forcing function, cutting out a huge percentage of our general distraction. Sure, we might be distracted by memes, but we also aren’t distracted by the office or broader in-person social dynamics (dress-codes are temporarily out the window). And so we are led to simplify; to retreat in an almost monastic sense, and focus on what is right in front of us. Work, family, creativity, whatever.
The upside of Corona is focus.
Passover is also a holiday of focus. It asks us to concentrate on the essentials; to let go of the litany of distractions that pull us in every direction and orient our attention towards the most important things in life. Family; heritage; ancestry; history; wisdom.
Matzah is a bread of distillation. It is tasteless, simple, bare. And yet, that simplicity carries everything we need.
Why is this night different from all other nights? Because it represents a temporary elevation in consciousness. We have the power to access states of mind that aren’t normally available.
The simplicity of the holiday allows for greater transcendence. The seder table is an invitation to let our consciousness expand towards the entirety and singularity of Jewish history. We see all of it at once, as one flowing river.
We learn to take the very long view of history, which conversely allows us to take the very long view of the future.
We learn to recontextualize the events of our lives into this broader narrative, which has a profoundly relaxing effect on the mind. Even the worst of our struggles have a place.
And remember, Passover is a call to action. Through this temporary clarity, it becomes a lot clearer what we are supposed to be doing at a very practical level.
The macro informs the micro, and we are on our way.
As this pandemic rages, let us distill this massive global event to a single question: what do we take for granted?
Sure, this pandemic may be tragic, but let’s recall human history; the Black Plague killed two hundred million people in the 1350s. Things could be so much worse than they are right now. We need to give thanks to the scientific revolution, development of digital technology, and so many other innovations that allow us to control the spread of the disease and save lives.
Coronavirus is an opportunity to remember the progress we have made as a species and give thanks.
Maybe the small things that we worried about a couple of months weren’t as important as we thought. Maybe the superfluous shopping and excess traveling weren’t bringing us as much happiness as we wanted. Maybe the rat race was a total waste of life, and maybe we need to spend more time with our families.
Maybe we need to remember the gift that our ancestors have given to us, and maybe we need to pay it forward. Remember that we have a higher duty to continue the progress of the eons, and commit to taking responsibility.
I sincerely hope that all of the brilliant people out there who weren’t previously living at their fullest potential are now sitting in quarantine and remembering their purposes in life. We need you now; the urgency of this global event demands all hands on deck.
Spaceship Earth is taking off to fight this pandemic and beyond; will you get on board?
Passover and Existential Risk
Several years ago, I attended a talk at Burning Man by Jamie Wheal, the Director of the Flow Genome Project. He normally riffs on flow states; extraordinary yet ordinary consciousness accessed by Navy Seals, elite athletes, and spiritual seekers.
Yet this wasn’t one of his ordinary talks, and he broke the glass right away. The topic was existential risk and system failure. He told us that we were dangerously close to a breakdown in nation-states and global institutions, fueled by our increased technological power and economic interdependence.
Morbid topic right? And yet I got chills down my spine. I was more engaged than I had been by anything in a long time. Addressing existential risk soon became a personal fascination and a part of core my life Purpose.
Why is that? Because it turns out that I am really really good at thinking about these things. I can’t explain it; I just naturally obsess over crisis management, resilience, decentralized solutions, and global systems-level thinking. I was designed for this. It appeals to both my rational analytic mind, as well as my intuitive senses.
And so I spent the last couple of years building Aqueduct, a startup addressing water infrastructure risk. It didn’t work out because of cofounder breakup and other factors, but that’s not the point; I had the luxury of studying the fundamentals of systematic risk well in advance of Coronavirus.
And so as the pandemic hit, I felt prepared to make sense of this new world. Life warned me well in advance of what was to come.
Last week, I ordered a book called The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity by Toby Ord. It was released two weeks ago and written by a researcher in the philosophy department at Oxford (also the founder of Effective Altruism, an organization created to optimize global resources towards the greatest positive societal impact). Perfect timing for me to read this book.
The book addresses the unprecedented amount of risk that we have incurred as a species. We have made exponential progress over the centuries and subsequently exponentially increased our risk. This manifests in ecosystem collapse, climate change, AI risk, bioweapons, nuclear warfare, and more. As scary as this sounds, it is also a reality. We can’t afford to look the other way or we will drive off a cliff.
Only forty-nine pages into the book, I started laughing. The eternal messages of Passover were shining right through, as though it were written by a Rabbi (Ord is not Jewish from what I can see).
“We are not the first generation. Our cultures, institutions, and norms; our knowledge, technology, and property; these were gradually built up by our ancestors, over the course of ten thousand generations. Humanity’s remarkable success has relied on our capacity for intergenerational cooperation; inheriting from our parents, making some small improvements of our own, and passing it all down to our children. Without this cooperation, we would have no houses or farms, we would have no traditions of dance or song, no writing, no nations.”
He further quotes political theorist Edmund Burke, who wrote in 1970 that society is a “partnership in all science, in all art, in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained except in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
Is this not exactly what Passover is whispering to us?
The very existence of society rests on what was constructed in the past. Our ancestors have long since passed, and yet they are still stakeholders in this equation. We have a duty to them.
Similarly, we must consider the countless number of generations who will be affected by the decisions that we make today. They aren’t present, and yet must be considered as stakeholders in this equation.
Existential risk threatens to squander all of that. Human stupidity, cowardice, and short term thinking threaten to wipe out millennia of accumulated wisdom, and all of the potential of a much better future.
We are asleep at the wheel right now because the vast majority of people have forgotten their responsibilities to their ancestors and descendants.
Far too many people pointlessly pursue hedonistic pleasure and walk a nihilistic, ego-driven path. Far too many business leaders prioritize the maximization of earnings per share over the health of the climate. Far too many politicians worry about getting elected instead of taking care of their constituents. Far too many bureaucrats say “no” and enforce red tape when they need to be taking risks.
Far too many citizens voted with the selfish goal of reducing their taxes and decided to handle the nuclear codes to a reality TV star (I have Trump-supporting friends who I love and appreciate, but this was probably one of the single stupidest things the United States has ever done as a country).
This is because they have forgotten the critical values of ancestral continuity and long term thinking. We can’t afford to get disconnected from our lineages; we have more than enough wisdom on this planet to accelerate into a brilliant future, but we need to start finding ways to access it.
As I’ve argued numerous times above, this what Passover is for the Jewish people. This holiday reminds us of our intergenerational partnerships, and our responsibilities to protect and continue our tradition.
There is a sense of reciprocity built into the fabric of the religion. We repay our ancestors for these gifts by paying it forward; creating a better future for our children and descendants. And continuing the cycle of wisdom sharing forever and ever, as long as any Jewish people exist on planet earth.
I believe that the pandemic is only the beginning and we are headed into a century of existential risk. While this might seem scary, it also represents a massive leap forward in consciousness. We have the opportunity to stop worrying about squabbles between ethnicities and nation-states and focus on the survival of the whole of humanity.
This is why existential risk also might mean planetary thriving. There are so many doors that just opened up in terms of global collaboration that didn’t exist before. Just look at the amount of research pouring out of labs and universities across the planet towards one singular goal. I don’t care if you spent a trillion dollars trying to accomplish that in 2019 — it would never have happened. Previously impossible.
And so here we are. With great power comes great responsibility.
The old guard of leadership is moving on, and the new generation is coming into power. This is an extremely important mission and we cannot screw this up.
Let’s use Corona as an opportunity to shelter in place, tap into our deepest wisdom and figure out how to thrive.
Passover is a great place to start that process.
Happy Passover. Next Year in Jerusalem.
*Orthodox Jews will not use zoom due to prohibitions on technology during a Holy Day.