NEW YORK (JTA) — Every Passover, we strive to experience Egypt in our own lives.
Locating the suffering of our Egypt wasn’t hard this year: It seems like most days my husband and I share the names of new people we personally know who have passed away from COVID-19 and families devastated by the challenging conditions in which their loved ones passed away. We have been mourning the absence of community, the simplest and deepest of joys.
The Alter Rebbe of Gur, known as the Sfat Emet (1847-1905), offers a beautiful teaching, writing that “we are meant to believe that there is a Yetziat Mitzrayim, an exodus from Egypt, in every moment.” Michael Walzer, in “Exodus and Revolution,” expresses the similar idea that “wherever [we] live, it is probably Egypt” and that the political fight forward requires walking hand in hand toward a better promised land.
Despite the bitterness of our experiences, however, I cannot help but feel that it would be wrong for me to think of myself as being personally in Egypt this year when so many of my fellow citizens are experiencing an Egypt that I am not. This year, although we are isolated as never before, our Yetziat Mitzrayim must take into account the bitterness of the most vulnerable.
I began to consider this shortly before my son’s preschool closed down in early March. When my husband reached out to his principal to ask about the school’s online education offerings, she could not give us ready answers; she was too concerned about the many families in the preschool who had no laptops at home or access to the internet. How could she offer a virtual education that wouldn’t just aggravate the social inequality among her students?
Hearing this from my toddler’s principal felt a bit surreal. I knew intellectually that there are families in this city who live below the poverty line and cannot afford access to a computer. But this immediate reminder — in my son’s school — brought this reality close to home.
I kept thinking about the social divisions that characterized our country before COVID-19 but were invisible in my own life. I do not know any of my friends, and was not aware of my acquaintances, who could not afford to have a working computer or access to the internet.
As days have gone by I feel this split reality ever more powerfully. I am part of an amazing, tight-knit Jewish community. I know that if my family were ever in need I would have family, friends and community organizations who would help us. Like me, most of my friends are concerned about holding down our jobs at home while taking care of our children. And while this is presenting unprecedented challenges, I know that I am not a health crisis away from being homeless.
One particular image from the pandemic haunts me. Early in April, The New York Times profiled Ezzie Dominguez, who had lost her job as a domestic worker. She now feeds her family of four by working at night cleaning buildings, including hospital buildings, which she cleans without any protective gear.
Dominguez is in remission from cancer, making her especially vulnerable. Knowing that a deadly virus has spanned our city, she cleans hospitals without protection, feeding her children but risking their infection every night. She cannot afford the luxury of social distance that I, like many, take for granted. The maror is bitter indeed.
Dominguez’s case is not an exception; it is representative. The data show that there is a clear relationship between socioeconomic standing, which often correlates with racial identity, and COVID-19 infection. Data scientist Michael Donnelly has pointed out that wealthier Zip codes average many fewer incidents of coronavirus than poorer ones, and by a margin that continues to widen.
It is not difficult to understand why this is occurring. Because living quarters are tighter, especially where multiple generations in one family often live together in close quarters, and less privileged workers are often unable to work from home or even to take paid sick leave, these populations are especially vulnerable to infection.
I couldn’t help but think of this predicament as I was preparing for Passover and reading new studies suggesting that coronavirus is passed through small droplets in the air. If before I was avoiding the grocery store to protect others, now I began to feel afraid for myself and my family at the prospect of entering one. On the one hand, it now felt necessary to order deliveries to my home. But on the other hand, it felt morally compromising.
Granted, deliveries are needed to continue operating our economy and to prevent overcrowding inside indoor public spaces. But what does it say about our society that my ability to protect myself is based on a system in which workers have no paid leave, no proper protective gear and who must — to feed their families — go to work even if they have underlying conditions or live with elder and vulnerable family members? This is the bitterness of Egypt.
As a religious person and a Jewish leader, I take seriously the call from Jewish tradition to apply memory to our contemporary reality and to identify with my slave ancestors who suffered bondage. It is precisely their memory that commands me to resist finding the anguish of Egypt in my own experiences, and instead locate it in the lives of the most vulnerable, whose lives are most at risk from this global pandemic. We know that the road to the promised land is long, filled with tribulations and murmurings. But our journey forward cannot start before we identify the Egypt we are exiting.
Which brings me back to our collective experiences — and responsibilities — during Passover. Sephardic versions of the Haggadah say that one must “show” himself or herself as though they left Egypt, while the Ashkenazi verbiage demands that we actually “see” ourselves as though we left Egypt.
But this command from our collective Jewish memory is different from what the Torah demands from us as the moral consequence of leaving Egypt. The Torah says that we shall not oppress the stranger because we were once strangers in Egypt. Our suffering — the backbreaking forced labor, seeing our babies murderously thrown into the Nile, living in a state of generational hopelessness — means that we know the heart of the stranger (Exodus 23:9) and must act accordingly.
There is a fine but important distinction here. One voice from our tradition asks us to find in our lives the bitterness of Egypt, while the other demands that we expand our gaze to feel the suffering of our forebears through the anguish that the most vulnerable in our society are experiencing.
Those of us who have lost loved ones or who are now experiencing economic crisis might find spiritual sustenance by identifying with the bitterness of Egypt. But to the extent that I have been spared from the full ravages of coronavirus, I feel I must heed the other call and seek to focus my gaze on the lives of others.
This does not mean that we should not mourn what we have lost and the challenges we are experiencing. But we must shift our gaze to the profound, existential suffering of others, those in dire straits, the metaphorical Egypt that requires urgent deliverance.
Mijal Bitton, Ph.D., is a fellow in residence at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and the Rosh Kehilla of the Downtown Minyan.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the AJP or its publisher, the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.