Some things become clearer when our world contracts. Life in this time of plague reminds us of the Talmud’s directions for the search for hametz before Passover. The rabbis instruct us to search for hametz not in the bright light of daytime, but in the dark of night, by candlelight. We are told to search the corners and the crevices of our homes for crumbs of bread, to look in the places where even the brightest sun would not reach. Searching at night, by candlelight forces us to look carefully, to notice things we might miss with daylight all around us.
Searching by candlelight illuminates the paradox that daylight can be distracting, even overwhelming. By candlelight we can discern more, not less. Our priorities sharpen. What we most value comes to light.
In quarantine and isolation, many of us are realizing, or admitting, what is true in our most intimate relationships. We notice how we feel about being home with our significant other for the indefinite future, or how we feel about being alone. We notice whether seeing a particular name pop up on our phones awakens anxiety or joy. Suddenly we can perceive who in our lives provides us comfort or a good laugh, which favorite foods or songs can carry us through a challenging time, or when we long for solitude.
As humanity faces a pandemic, the deluge of news, social media, and webinars can feel like the deceptively bright sunshine, showing us so much, but ultimately offering only the illusion of knowledge and order. It can actually make it harder to focus and search for what we seek. For many of us, limiting our news intake — say, to a few trusted sources for half an hour a day — not only helps us stave off panic, but also helps us discern what texts or content bring us greater understanding, clarity, or sometimes even hope. It also can remind us of what we care about, of the concerns that animated us before COVID-19 began to take up every available channel of our awareness, and bring us back to ourselves.
On the world stage, we see which individuals, organizations, and government bodies are rising to this moment, in this time of plague. Like Moses, Miriam and Aaron, who led the Israelites out of Egypt, they are building relationships and coalitions in order to forge a pathway out of this crisis. They choose generosity and action, even at great personal cost or risk. Recently, a photo was circulated on social media of two health workers in Israel, pausing in the midst of their work to pray next to their shared ambulance. One was Jewish, draped in his tallit, the other was Muslim, kneeling on his prayer rug. These are the people who act from hope instead of fear. Theirs are the voices of song that rise up from our balconies and living rooms.
View this post on Instagram
This viral photo shows a Jewish EMT and a Muslim EMT taking a moment for prayer in the midst of a hectic day of fighting for the lives of Covid-19 patients. The ambulance is marked "Negev" which is the southern region of Israel. This is why the Jew is facing north toward Jerusalem and the Muslim is facing south toward Mecca. #jewish #israel #coronavirus
As clarifying and focused as searching with the dim light of a candle may be, our tradition recognizes that we will never find every single crumb of bread in our homes. And so, we are directed to recite a short text as we conclude our search that declares “Kol Chamira…All leaven which is in my possession, which I have neither seen nor removed, and about which I am unaware, shall be considered nullified and ownerless as the dust of the earth.”
Even as we’ve set aside so many of the less critical parts of our lives during this pandemic, we know that distractions will remain. Kol Chamira, May we be granted the wisdom to discern between what we need and what we don’t need this Passover. Kol Chamira, May we be granted the courage to build a safer and healthier and more just world for all of humanity. And may we retain that clarity even when we re-enter a fully illuminated world.