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Death and life, freedom and captivity

Death and life, freedom and captivity

With friends and colleagues succumbing to virus, Covid-19’s numbers become names

You knew when Steve Steiner called you at work, it wouldn’t take very much of your time. The long-time public relations director for the Orthodox Union, until his retirement a few years back, Steve would identify himself and say, “I just want to draw your attention to a news release I sent you a little while ago.” No haranguing, no nudzhing. Just a gentle reminder to check your inbox.

That gentle Steve, 75, fell victim to a relentless virus this week, becoming one of the more than 900 New Yorkers to succumb to Covid-19 by Tuesday. Although every life lost is precious, the dreadful reality of the pandemic is being felt in the list, sure to grow, of accomplished members of our community who have died from the disease. We’ve already had to say goodbye to William Helmreich, 74, a sociologist of Jewish life who read every street of his beloved New York as if it were a sacred text (see his obituary here) and wrote the authoritative history on the Jews of this region in “Enduring Community: The Jews of Newark and MetroWest” (Transaction Publishers, 1998); and Maurice Berger, 63, a curator and historian who shaped numerous groundbreaking exhibitions at The Jewish Museum.

The toll of the disease is often described in the cold but necessary numbers of epidemiology, and the numbers themselves begin to lose meaning as they grow. But the victims, we must always remember, are our friends, our colleagues, and our neighbors. We must do all we can to contain this virus, not just for the good of our own communities but for everyone, everywhere. If that means sacrificing some of our most cherished rituals, including the rituals that let us mourn our loved ones in ways that our tradition prescribes and their memory demands, so be it.

Similarly, this will be a Passover like no other, as we give up the embrace of our extended families for safe, secluded seders. In a season that celebrates freedom, we will contemplate our seeming helplessness before an unseen enemy. A festive holiday will be haunted by illness and death, and chairs will be left empty temporarily and, sadly, forever. We may shiver as we recall the 12th chapter of Exodus, when, during the final plague — the death of the firstborn of Egypt — the Torah describes the wailing that was heard: “Ki ein bayit asher ein sham meit,” for there was no household that was spared.

This year demands that we mark Passover as a holiday of contradictions: darkness and light, life and death, freedom and captivity. We will have to learn new lessons from an old text, and connect with loved ones in unfamiliar ways.

And mostly, we will need to care for each other, to comfort the mourners, pray for the ill, and cherish the bonds of kinship and biology that attach us to yoshvei tevel — all who dwell on earth.

In this period of peril and clashing priorities, we are being asked — no, commanded — to choose life.

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