With Outstretched Arms: Reflections On Passover and Mental Health from a Parent’s Perspective

Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew (פֶּסַח‎), is a major Jewish holiday that commemorates the biblical story of the enslaved children of Israel leaving ancient Egypt. From the most secular to the most observant, almost every Jew observes the holiday with certain rituals, including joining family and friends at a Passover meal, known as a Seder. Literally translated as “order,” the Seder is  one of the most widely observed rituals in Judaism. Reclining in chairs the way free  people — as opposed to slaves — did in ancient times, we go around the table recounting the story of the Israelites’ exodus.

Most Jews have memories of Seders from when they were children. One of my most treasured was when I studied in Brussels during college, and the family I lived with hosted a Seder for my parents, my sister and me when they were visiting during spring break. The mother and father had both been saved by righteous nuns during the Holocaust, and they had never conducted a Seder. What a special night! I vividly recall seeing a tear well up in my Belgian “mom’s” eye when we read the part in the Haggadah (the Passover Seder service book) about the importance of telling the Exodus story to future generations. This is an ongoing theme about Jewish history: making sure every generation remembers the past and understands it as a way  to continue our legacy. 

The central idea of Passover is thanking Hashem (G-d) for taking us out of Egypt. During the Seder and at other times during the holiday, we recite Hallel, a collection of psalms of praise. “Therefore it is our duty to thank, praise, laud, glorify, exalt, honor, bless, extol and pay respect to He who did all these miracles for our ancestors and for us. He took us from slavery unto freedom, from sorrow to joy, from mourning to festivity, from darkness to bright light, from bondage to redemption. Therefore, let us recite a new song for Him. Hallelukah – praise G-d.” We praise Him from generation to generation, hallellukah (l’dor v’dor, hallelukah). 

We reaffirm that G-d took us out “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.” This phrase is used to describe G-d’s powerful protection of the children of Israel. As parents, we want to protect our children and save them from harm. But we all know that isn’t always possible. Sometimes, particularly when it comes to mental illness, parents cannot spare their child from experiencing painful episodes. When my daughter was struggling, I did everything in my power to get her the clinical help she needed. What we also need is for our community to extend its arms in support of those facing mental health challenges. 

The Seder evokes our collective memory as a people. What lessons are we passing down to our children? Watching a loved one struggle with mental health can be heartbreaking. Having faith means recognizing G-d’s plan is divine. When my daughter was recovering from a mental health crisis last Passover, we gained strength from our tradition to get us through that time. Although a very unpleasant and frightening chapter in my family’s story, our experience ultimately led to good things. We relish her recovery and thank G-d she now laughs with her siblings and gives impromptu hugs. We share our story often to help increase awareness and decrease the stigma of mental illness in the Jewish community.

The Haggadah teaches us G-d redeems the Israelites with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, so they will know him. The implication is that G-d will provide a lesson to both the Israelites and the nations of the world, showing his awesome power. 

Incidentally, Jews are not the only ones who celebrate Passover. In Christianity, Good Friday celebrations are based on the Passover feast. Some Christians also celebrate Passover as a Christian holiday. Sunni Muslims recognize when G-d saved Moses and his followers with a two-day fast instead of one to differentiate from the  Jewish custom of first-born males fasting to commemorate the miracle that spared the first-born sons of Israel from the plague that killed the first-born sons of the Egyptians.

Like the Seder, Judaism itself is about memory — passing traditions from one generation to another and transferring values from parents to children, even when doing so is difficult. We celebrate Passover in good times and in challenging ones. During “Pandemic Pesach” 2020, Jews around the world were forced to think creatively about how to make Seder meaningful. Virtual ‘Zoom’ Seders helped families feel connected when they could not gather safely around the table. My family started a tradition of putting photos of our parents/grandparents on our table, so they could be with us symbolically. We’ll do that again this year, and, please G-d, we will all be together next year in Jerusalem. 

As many celebrate their second Passover during the COVID-19 pandemic, the question for these times and beyond is, Where do we want to place ourselves in the ongoing journey of Jewish history? Our children will continue to feel the impact of both disappointments and opportunities from this prolonged period of isolation. They may need more time to come to terms with feelings of loss from cancelled school events and family vacations and not being able to celebrate milestones like b’nai mitzvot, birthday parties and graduations. Perhaps they will carry over some of the COVID-driven lifestyle changes after the pandemic ends, such as baking with the family, exploring faraway places remotely and washing their hands frequently. I have heard psychologist, Dr. Betsy S. Stone, speak about this in Zoom events. She wonders what our ‘COVID keepers’ will be. Will we embrace a less frantic pace and recognize the essential work done by unsung heroes in our community? Long after the pandemic ends, experts predict the need to address lingering mental health issues in our families and our communities. 

Incorporating new traditions to the Passover themes of freedom, redemption and spiritual growth is an important part of connecting to our heritage. With this in mind, let’s ask ourselves how we can preserve the best of the past and combine it with our hopes and dreams for the future. Understanding the true meaning of Passover is one of the greatest gifts we can give to future generations. It is a time to take pride in knowing we went from slavery to freedom. It is a message of hope that with G-d’s blessing, we can achieve our dreams.

Let us have the wisdom to teach our children that if they need our support, we will be there with outstretched arms to help them. We will be there not just for them but for all who struggle. And let us teach our children how to help others with dignity and respect.

Chag Pesach sameach. Wishing everyone a safe and meaningful Passover !   

Lisa Ziv has a passion for supporting parents as they navigate their children’s mental health challenges and building more supportive schools and communities. Her reflections on mental health and the Jewish holidays inspire families to cope with uncertain times. Lisa is chief strategy officer at the Blue Dove Foundation, a nonprofit organization that addresses the issues of mental illness and addiction in the Jewish community and beyond, and an advisor to the National Alliance on Mental Illness FaithNet National Committee. For information, go to lisaziv.com.


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