Posted on April 7, 2020 by Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck
“In every generation we must see ourselves as if we personally went forth from Egypt…” (The Haggadah)
Until now, I have never fully appreciated the significance of these two little words, “as if.” In Hebrew, one word suffices to say this, and that word is “k’ilu.”Children seem to understand innately the possibilities of k’ilu. They play dress-up, have imaginary friends, and generally allow their imaginations more play than their older, more inhibited counterparts.
But k’ilu is much more than fun and games. It is a critical element for generating empathy and inspiring action, and for cultivating hope, maintaining courage, and coping with difficult circumstances.
In the Talmud we are told that we should pray “as if” the shechinah, G-d’s presence, were before us. Why “as if?” Did our sages doubt that G-d was present? We can’t know the exact state of their faith or doubt, but it is fair to say that our rabbis understood the challenge of remaining optimistic when times were hard. Their answer was to think, pray, and act “as if” in order to help us find our way to hope and faith. We begin with imagination, with k’ilu, because if we can imagine it, we can come to feel it and embody it.
The k’ilu of Passover has had a profound impact on the values and spirit of our people for thousands of years. Imagining ourselves as slaves. Steeping ourselves in the mindset of the downtrodden, through the rituals and recitations of the Seder and seven days of eating matzah, has made us deeply sensitive to oppression in all forms, and galvanized our resolve to fight such degradation wherever it appears. And, seeing ourselves “as if” we were liberated from Egyptian bondage has imbued our people with hope and faith that redemption will yet come.
In normal times the Passover Seder is an “as if” experience. We imagine that Elijah will come when we open the door. We eat horseradish to help us imagine the bitterness of slavery. This year most of us will have the added element of needing to imagine our family and friends sitting with us around our tables due to the coronavirus. Thankfully we have technology like Zoom to help us gather virtually, to help us feel “as if” we were “really” together.
But this time of crisis demands of us an extra dimension of “as if.” It calls us to see ourselves as if we were among those most affected, so we will be moved to act responsibly and compassionately to assist and protect them. This begins with obeying the orders to stay at home and practice social distancing, but it can go far beyond that.
Some members of our community are sewing masks for the caregivers (they are happy to share instructions on how to do this). Others are donating to the Somerset County Food Bank, which is serving increasing numbers of people who are experiencing food insecurity. Some are providing direct relief to families who have lost their income (individuals have donated funds to the Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund for me to disburse anonymously to members of our community who are in need). Dozens of our members are volunteering through our Helping Hands efforts; you can join them by sending an email to
HelpingHands@templebethelnj.org. These are just some of the blessings of k’ilu, of the moral resolve that can come from seeing ourselves as if we were among the afflicted.
As we prepare for Pesach under these strange and extraordinary circumstances, let us embrace the spirit of k’ilu, that we may expand our sympathy and compassion to all who are affected by this crisis. As we gather for Seder, may our distance from each other be only physical. May we feel each other’s warmth and love. May we feel the nearness of God. And may Pesach renew our hope for deliverance from all that constrains us and the entire human family.
Chag Pesach sameach
Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck
Originally published in the April 2020 issue of the Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives.