Before World War II, 50,000 Jews lived in Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. At the end of the war, just 2,000 remained. Among these survivors was a young woman who was almost killed by a firing squad, saved at the last moment when her non-Jewish brother-in-law paid off Nazi officials. Another was a young man who was outside the ghetto when the Jews were being rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. He stayed in hiding with fake identification.
These two survivors married and became parents. Never wanting to be defined by what they lost, they instead imparted a powerful lesson to their son, Dr. Albert Bourla: Life is miraculous.
Who is Dr. Bourla? He’s currently the CEO of Pfizer, one of the first companies to create a Covid vaccine, who guided his staff toward a monumental breakthrough at record speed, believing miracles — with science — are possible.
And the first person to receive a Pfizer vaccine back in Thessaloniki? A 98-year-old Holocaust survivor. While Dr. Bourla credited God, a Greek health official called it justice for the son of survivors to have helped create the vaccine that would be first administered to another survivor in their hometown.
Dr. Bourla shared his remarkable story with over 2,000 people earlier this week at a UJA virtual event, reminding us that there are miracles and examples of justice in our world...which brings us to the holiday of Passover.
“In every generation, we are all obligated to see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt.” We read these words in the Haggadah, and while the italics are mine, the emphasis is clear: We are commanded to recreate the miraculous story of Passover as if we actually experienced it ourselves.
The question is why. Why on other Jewish holidays are we asked only to observe the day, yet on Passover we’re instructed to re-live the Exodus experience?
One answer that has always resonated with me: It’s to teach that with freedom comes responsibility. We recreate enslavement so that we, whose ancestors were liberated, can truly internalize each year at the Seder what it means to live with deprivation, oppression, and fear — and thereby better empathize with those among us who still do.
On most years, this Seder re-enactment stretches our imagination. But this is not most years. After a year of restrictedness, of personal and collective loss — a year of isolation, anxiety, and grief — we don’t have to work hard to imagine a loss of freedom. For families with permanently empty chairs at their Seder tables who are now or soon observing their first yahrzeit, this is a painful time. For all of us, I doubt we’ll ever forget what was taken and what we learned to appreciate with new clarity.
Slowly now, we’re beginning to live the second part of the Passover story — the story of redemption. Compared to the holiday last year, when we were in full lockdown and New York was the epicenter of the pandemic, the weight of uncertainty is starting to lift. With vaccine distribution underway, once again we know what it is to stand on the cusp of freedom. It's the feeling that life can be miraculous.
And it’s the hope, having lived through the pandemic, that we’ll also come out the other side a wiser, kinder, more connected community.
Shabbat shalom — and wishing you and your families a healthy and happy Passover. Chag sameach!
P.S. If you’re looking for ways to enhance your Passover — from virtual Seders to children’s activities to contemporary Haggadah insights — check out our resources page.