A lovely family photograph recently made it into many news outlets: a young boy and his slightly older sister being waved off to school, wearing neat uniforms and slightly self-conscious smiles for the camera. At first glance, it’s a typically sweet example of the ‘first day at school’ picture that can be found in many people’s photo albums.
Only on a second glance might you realise that the parents aren’t so much waving to their children as punching the air and shouting for joy, for this is a 2021 photograph: the children are returning for their first day back at school after months of home-schooling in coronavirus lockdown. Despite twinges of guilt, few of us have escaped at least fleeting dreams of temporary relief from our nearest and dearest: even loving them dearly, even blessed with decent housing and garden space, the pressures of being confined to quarters with family while juggling childcare, paid work and all that keeps a house running have created great strain for many.
We might, therefore, have newfound sympathy when Torah describes Aaron and his sons entering their own lockdown during the seven days of their ordination. Twice they are told, “You shall not go outside the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days, until the day that your period of ordination is completed… You shall remain at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting day and night for seven days” (Lev 8:33, 35). It is not only a government edict that orders the priests to shelter in place, with the threat of fines for disobedience: it is Divine authority, impossible to argue with; Rashi even suggests that failure to stay in place was punishable by death.
Some commentators find the idea of total lockdown unthinkable: Ibn Ezra imagines the priests free to leave whenever they need to, as long as they don’t concern themselves with other business or go walking to distant places; Ramban reads the restriction as applying only until they had finished the service required of them on that day. Yet to us, total lockdown is now only too comprehensible. We can imagine how living on top of one another for a whole week might give a new explanation for Aaron’s reputation as a peacemaker: the frustrations of confinement would surely generate sparks of temper that need damping down, even among holy men – especially when, like ours, the priests’ lockdown becomes extended. Originally seven days long, the next chapter begins with Moses calling them to stay for yet more sacrifices on the eighth day.
There is also a bitter irony here, often obscured by the division of Torah into weekly readings but visible when we read directly on to the next chapters of Leviticus. In Parashat Tzav, the new priests are told to remain at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, “keeping the Eternal One’s charge – that you may not die” (Lev 8:35). They obey and stay in place for the full week, yet despite that assurance, on the eighth day (just two chapters later) two of Aaron’s sons die. At the time that the initial instruction is given for a week of lockdown, the priests probably cannot imagine what lies in their future, nor that they might suffer despite their attempts to be scrupulously observant, let alone that they would want to observe mourning rituals and have them restricted by lockdown.
It’s fairly easy to see parallels with our own experiences during the pandemic. There are so many among us who would have loved the chance to long for some space from family members; an opportunity denied them by bereavement over the past year, compounded by restrictions that also denied the comforts of many Jewish mourning traditions. As we celebrate a second Pesach in lockdown, we face Seder night as a time when our awareness of who is missing from our lives is often heightened: whether you’re looking around a physical table or a Zoom screen, in this focused space it’s easy to notice the absences. Whose grumbles about the strength of horseradish do you long to hear one more time? Whose bad matzah jokes are you missing? Whose voice no longer enlivens your Dayeinu?
Even as the easing of lockdown begins across the UK, the contrast between Pesach as the joyful festival of freedom and our current situation still feels stark. Equally contradictory feelings may touch us: we may be grieving an empty chair at our Seder table, or rejoicing to celebrate virtually with family and friends overseas; we may feel relieved when our loved ones return to school or the office, or relish every hour that we spend with them; we may be too tired even to be angry, or feel energised by the signs of spring arriving outdoors. We may feel any or all of these from moment to moment.
Perhaps the freedom we most need to give ourselves this Pesach is the freedom to acknowledge the complexity of our feelings, a year into this pandemic. If we can be patient and accepting of ourselves as well as others, perhaps we will make it safely through lockdown and into renewed freedom for us all; until then, may we all know moments that make this a zissen Pesach, a sweet Passover.
Eleanor Davis LBC rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.