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On Wednesday night, when we ask “How is this night different from all the nights?”, a look around the table will provide us with one unusual answer. We are more alone than usual. If we follow instructions, we will be without our grown children, grandchildren, relatives and friends who usually attend our seder. And why? Because a virus with a crown-like halo called corona has upset the normal workings of societies around the globe.
It is also having an unusually large effect on Jewish religious communities in New York, London, Paris, Bnei Brak, Meah Shearim and elsewhere, for whatever reason.
How ironic that a “plague” is threatening our own Pesach. As if to let us stand the shoes of the Egyptians and understand the helplessness of the average Ahmed the Egyptian when he was being pelleted by plague after plague.
The seder, which means “order,” is intended to make order of the holiday. During the seder we go through a severely abridged history of our people, and we learn that bad times are nothing new to us. We are also inundated with symbolic acts that create mystifying paradoxes. For example:
The answer may be that our story of redemption contains both contrasting aspects of the experience. True, matza is poor people’s food. But it was also the bread of our freedom. We may recline like royalty now but the road to such luxury was hard and bitter. And while we may eat well now, this luxury was earned through many tears.
The four cups of wine we drink are another symbol, corresponding to the four expressions the Torah used to describe our liberation (Exodus 6:6-7):
The first two – “I have taken you out” and “I have rescued you,” refer to our being set free from the most oppressive reality we’d ever faced to that point.
The last two – “I have redeemed you” and “I have taken you to Me,” provide a more nuanced description of the nature of redemption: not an escape “from” Egypt as much as a journey “to” our ultimate destination – a land and an ongoing relationship with the God of our ancestors.
The haggada we read is a compilation of vignettes, stories, prayers and songs. When it began it was a thin booklet with a few prayers and such. Now it is a sizable book that can keep us engaged for hours (not counting the food!).
The stories it includes are not always what they seem. Deeper meanings lie just below the surface. For example, the famous story tells of five rabbis sitting in Bnei Brak and discussing the exodus from Egypt until the dawn’s early light and the call for the Shma of the morning. In actual fact they may have been discussing the revolt against the Romans. After all, Rabbi Akiva was the spiritual head of the revolt led militarily by Bar Kochba.
Another vignette, in the second half of the haggada, has a much more sinister back story. We open the door for Elijah the prophet and we read “Shfoch hamatcha” – pour your wrath on the nations. Is this any way to welcome Elijah?
In explanation, some rabbis say that since Pesach night is a leil shimurim – an evening of special divine protection – we open the door to show that we are not afraid.
The real story may be different. During times of the blood libels, when Jews were accused of killing Christian children to use their blood for making matza (what a disgusting thought!), Jews feared that the body of a Christian child might be deposited at their doorstep. So as not to frighten the children, the story was concocted of welcoming Elijah when in truth the adults were looking outside to make sure no incriminating evidence had been planted nearby. This was a ceremony where the “Pour your wrath” prayer was certainly appropriate.
Even our songs reflect our history. Karev yom – a day is coming – retells select chapters of our history in poetic form. And of course, Chad Gadya which ends our seder recounts the many enemies that have had a go at us through the ages. Ironically, they are all relegated to the history books and we are still here.
In this, the year of corona, we cannot consider the pandemic to be a plague on our house alone. It began elsewhere and has proliferated elsewhere, and it generously included us in its whirlwind tour of the globe as we do not like to be passed over by VIPs (Very Important Pogroms).
Restrictions have been imposed on our professional, social, gastronomic and cultural lives, and corona is inflicting heavy damage on the world economy. It is also making each seder into an almost clandestine affair, reminiscent of darker and much more dangerous periods for us as Jews. Because of this, Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz thinks this year’s seder will be far more similar to the Seder the Jews had in Egypt than in any other year. “This is going to be a Seder of courage, not a Seder of celebration,” he says. Because of this, we have to think how to make the seder a little more magical this year.
Rabbi Lizzie Heydemann of Chicago adds. “In the Passover story in the Torah we are instructed essentially to stay in our homes and paint the doorpost with blood to keep our family safe. Now the charge is, ‘Stay in your house to keep other people’s families safe as well.’”
However we celebrate, Pesach is a time of rebirth and hope for us. We will overcome this pandemic, we will resume our lives and our experiences will become part of the lore remembered by coming generations.
Shabbat Shalom and Pesach Kasher v’Sameach