Today is the day before the day before the first day of spring. Two of the bird-feeders were entirely empty this morning. Was it that pair of bluetits, or the jays I’ve seen looking out from the crab-apple branch to peck at their moment? And look at those branches, their buds emerging, tiny grey-green hands unfolding into the sunlight and the rain. The spring: how we’ve longed for it, how we need it this year!
Preparations for Pesach, festival of freedom, have never felt so timely. Last year they marked our going into lockdown. Pressing practicalities pre-occupied us; perhaps they distracted us from deeper fears: would we be able to get any matzah? And the bitter herbs? And all those places around the table, on all other nights laid for twelve or twenty-three, unruly with songs and stories, but that night almost silent, set for just one, or two, or maybe four.
This year, the festival marks the beginning of our liberation. We will still be only few together. It will once again be a very different night. It won’t be like it says in the Torah; there will be no chipazon, no sudden hurry, no setting forth in multitudes at dawn. But before us lies the journey out of lockdown and there can be hope in our hearts. We’re on the road and that is cause for joy.
There’s another, more profound, difference from our departure from slavery long ago. When Pharaoh demanded to know who was going to leave Egypt, Moses answered firmly: ‘With our young and our old, with our sons and our daughters, will we go.’ For us, after over a year of pandemic, not everyone is coming out of it with us, especially not among our old.
March 23rd, this Tuesday, marks a year since the first lockdown across Britain. Marie Curie, that wonderful organisation which has supported hundreds of thousands of families as they face the death of a loved one, has called for a National Day of Reflection,
to reflect on our collective loss, support those who’ve been bereaved, and hope for a brighter future. [It] will give us all time to pause and think about this unprecedented loss we’re facing, and support each other through grief in the years to come.
In our community, we will come together for the Yizkor memorial service we’ll hold online towards the close of Passover, on the evening of April 1st. We will contemplate the year which has passed, acknowledge our losses, and plant a tree for every bereavement in our congregation, so that we remember, yet the sake of life.
For some of us, there will be one more empty place at the Seder. And it wasn’t even possible to say a true good-bye. ‘I love you’ isn’t the same by iPad. There is grief openly wept, and grief held deep within, because we couldn’t mourn as we would normally have done, hugging those we love, sitting together to cry, and laugh, and recollect. There is anger, too, and blame: did this have to happen thus?
So feelings are complex as we celebrate freedom and emerge, cautiously, out of lockdown.
I recall talking to someone whose lower leg had to be amputated after a motorbike accident. He spoke of having to learn to walk all over again. That’s not something we will literally have to do.
But the Torah speaks of walking together. We will have to relearn how to walk in true togetherness, as we meet again, first in parks and gardens, then, we hope, in our homes, at work and in our places of prayer.
I wonder if the Children of Israel listened to each other as they emerged into unfamiliar freedom: What were those days of darkness like for you? Were you afraid? Are you exhausted? From where did you find the resilience? What are you looking forward to most? Are you excited about the journey ahead?
We’ve needed lovingkindness to care for each other in our enforced apartness; we still need it now, but in different ways, as we come back into togetherness.
In all of this, we must not forget the spring. The Talmud tells us to find a blossoming fruit tree in this month of Nissan, so that we can bless it and bless life. The Tree of Life, which, deep within its branches has remained vital all through the long winter, is coming back into leaf and flower. It’s a joy to be appreciated, a wonder to behold.
Here’s to the tree of life!
Shabbat Shalom and good preparations for Pesach