It’s amazing how a slogan that wasn’t hackneyed two weeks ago is already tired: Why is this Passover different from other Passovers?
But it’s apt. This is the first Passover in my lifetime that Jews will be forced apart during a holiday that is entirely about being together. This is the first Passover for many of us that will be missing the reunion, the tumult, the vats of matzah ball soup.
And the themes of Passover — freedom from enslavement, inviting the stranger to your table; welcoming the prophet Elijah, harbinger of a Messianic time or a better day — are being shaken. Or, at least, challenged. Maybe deepened?
Five years ago, I was in the middle of reporting a column for the Forward in which I researched, experienced, and wrote about every single Jewish holiday in real time. The series became a book, My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew, which was published in 2017.
Of course that experience didn’t stop the Jewish calendar from provoking new questions each year. I am jarred and moved by how our tradition forces us to look much closer at the things we thought we understood or took for granted. And now we’re confronted by our first Passover in a pandemic.
The Forward hosted a discussion about this very different Passover last week via Zoom. Watch the video
As I prepare to host a Zoom seder next Wednesday — 40 relatives signed up so far — I asked some wise rabbis to help me rethink the Exodus story and the Passover rituals in light of how the world has been upended.
I was trying to get beyond the lists of tips for virtual gatherings that have become instantly ubiquitous, seeking instead a little Passover therapy of a sort. I asked these teachers to help me believe in the Seder in a year where it feels like it has lost its shape, when it’s wholly, necessarily unrecognizable, a tradition drained of tradition.
Excerpts of our conversations are below, edited for clarity.
‘This Passover is happening during a plague’
Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann, Mishkan Chicago
“It’s something of a consolation to remember that Jews have been figuring out how to have Passover Seders for thousands of years — during plagues, during periods of isolation and hiding, during tough times. I think this is an invitation to dig deep into our creative wells.
“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, to keep the Angel of Death from coming into our house. And now the charge is, ‘Stay in your house to keep other people’s families safe.’ Yes, this is about your family, but it’s also about public health.
“You know, the original Passover happened during a plague. This Passover is happening during a plague. And we will not be so lucky to have the Angel of Death pass over Jewish homes.”
‘We only appreciate our community when it’s off-limits’
Rabbi Elazar Muskin – Young Israel of Century City (Los Angeles)
“What if you’re literally alone? You still say the Haggadah and you still recite the questions and you still answer; it’s a dialogue with yourself, if you will.
“Pesach is not only a dialogue with the friends and family around the table; it’s with past generations, who are responding to you and conversing with you….We have an obligation to feel that we ourselves left Egypt. It has to be an emotional, psychological reenactment, and perhaps this year we will really feel it more than ever before.
“The hand of God controlling the world has never been more manifest to me in my life than now. On a personal level, I wake up and I’m breathing and everything functions and I thank God.
“You know, you think, ‘My God, we always say, ‘King of the universe.’ He is king of the universe. Guys, open up your eyes. He’s King of the Universe. He’s controlling this. And it’s universal. I’ve never seen in my lifetime — think about it — something that affects the entire universe? You name the country, they’re confronting coronavirus. So I think the message is so profound as I get ready for Pesach. The universality of God’s provenance is more apparent to me now than ever before.
“The first law of Passover is not a ritual law. It’s caring for those in need. If there is any lesson during this time, it’s worrying about the ‘we’, not the ‘I.’ That’s why the hoarding is so amoral, selfish, so inappropriate. I understand that you need to have supplies in your home — but it’s so anti the message of Pesach.
“The human situation is that you only appreciate that which you have when you no longer have it. We appreciate our health when we no longer have it. Same with mobility. We only appreciate our community when it’s off-limits to us. Many people have written to me: ‘Rabbi, I can’t wait to get back to synagogue.’ But five weeks ago you didn’t show up! When you had it, it didn’t mean so much.”
‘Now the enemy is us’
Rabbi Dr. Erin Leib Smokler – Director of Spiritual Development, Yeshivat Maharat
“The theme that feels most challenged this year is liberation, redemption, salvation. We like to celebrate and we like to talk about salvation and redemption, so sometimes we gloss over: what does it feel like to be oppressed? What does it feel like to sit in plague or darkness?
“It seems like this moment is pared down to that which we can hold onto. If you’re asking me where there is joy, I do think joy is related to living a pared-down life. Everyone is experiencing this differently, and I am very aware of my own personal privilege — so I realize what I’m about to say sounds a little bit ridiculous, but I’m discovering what I can live without.
“I left my house in New York City and drove to my in-laws’ house in Massachusetts thinking that I was leaving home for five days. Now I’ve been here for two-and-a-half weeks with no sign of returning any time soon. I’m learning that I can live with two pairs of pants. My children can live with three shirts and we can do a lot of laundry. We can live without our toys and most of our books. There is a joy in reducing life to its most elemental parts, in recognizing that I can just live with this love, with this family unit. I can. My life is fuller and richer when there’s more, but I can.”
“It’s just so interesting to see the ways in which the lines have been blurred here, consciously or not, between victim and victor. Here we are, identifying very much with the victims of the final plague — seeing ourselves very much in their story. And that’s not something we do ordinarily do. They are usually the other, they are the enemy. And now the enemy is us and there’s no difference between the one who suffers and the one who doesn’t. We’re actually all the same.”5
‘We don’t have a Moses’
Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman – Larchmont Temple (Westchester, N.Y.)
“When, in America, has our freedom ever been so constrained? Never. We have never felt in any way that we are — maybe not like slaves, but certainly forced to stay in one place, to shelter in place, to not to go where we want to go — parks being closed, playgrounds, eateries. I think this is confinement.
“I talked about this as we were ending the Book of Exodus — a sense of what it must have been like to live in a wilderness. To go to sleep with the uncertainty that a new day may not bring light — this is uncharted territory for us….Marge Piercy, the great poet, wrote in “Maggid:” ‘The courage to let go of the door, the handle. To shed the familiar.’ I think that’s what we’re experiencing now. And we don’t have a Moses. So how do we know which way to go?
“The difficulty is when we attribute the plagues to God. I think that’s a really slippery slope. If we start attributing modern plagues to God — ‘God caused the earthquake, God caused the virus.’ No. Animal contact and biology caused the plague. And our ability to get it in check will also be the brilliance of human minds and research and people in countries working together.
“God is our ability to heal — our ability to still be connected, still stand up and breathe. We have to be careful not to call it a plague or frame it as a plague. Though we feel it like a plague, I can’t believe this is God-given. God isn’t striking anybody. God is holding us up.
“We are going to open the door for Elijah, and if we ever needed the Messiah to come, man, oh Manischewitz, we need it now. A great scholar — Harvard theologian Harvey Cox writes about Elijah being the perennial no-show, and that’s the lesson. The lesson isn’t that Elijah is going to come; the lesson is that you’re going to open the door, there’s no Elijah, now what are you going to do?
“Well, you have to live as though you are Elijah’s emissary. You have to bring hope to a world that is dark. What do Jews do when the world is dark? Elie Wiesel said Jews invent new hope. So we are going to look at a no-show again — Elijah’s not going to be at the door — and we are going to say, O.K., we know you didn’t come, but we are going to try to act and live as if you did.’”
‘A Seder of courage’
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz – Kehilat Jeshurun, Manhattan
“The very beginning of the Seder — ‘now we are slaves, next year we will be in freedom’ — articulates that this is a classroom of courage. It’s not so much about celebrating freedom, but building the character that one needs to go to freedom, to be a free person.
“As for Mitzrayim — the narrow place. If you’re in New York City and you have seven people in your apartment, you are in a narrow place. But part of life is being able to contract yourself and live within the boundaries.
“Even in the worst times of Jewish history, we did the Seder. Because the Seder didn’t represent where we were, but where we wanted to be….So in actuality, we are going to have a Seder this year that is 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.
“The challenge this year will be how to give the Seder a little bit of magic. How do we make that Seder not just be one more time around the dining room table after all these days together in our routine? Every family should be thinking about how to make it feel different – a little magical — this year.”
‘Who is missing?’
Rabbi Sarah Messinger – Congregation Shireinu, Philadelphia
“Instead of asking, ‘Is the virus going to get me?’, we should be asking, ‘Why not me?’ You think you go through this world with a force field around you and then all of a sudden your force field is punctured, and you say, ‘Oh no. How could it happen?’
“But everyone’s got something. Everybody’s got cancer in their family or a terrible divorce or crime or sudden death. Everybody’s got a plague. The fact is that this plague right now is very uniting. It has no respect for age or wealth or beauty. All of a sudden, we see each other. There are neighbors talking to each other, there are people helping each other, who we normally don’t think of as part of our family.
“I think I would use this virus as an opportunity to talk about Dayenu, rather than the plagues. It’s easy to focus on the degradation, but the Dayenu is about: What are we satisfied with? What are we willing to say, ‘Wow, I’m so lucky that…’?
“Every seder needs to start with: This night really is different from all the other times we’ve celebrated. You got to start there. This seder is like a shiva, and the whole point of shiva is starting with the recognition that somebody, or something, is missing.
“This year we’re going to have a virtual family seder because our family is all over the place, which I try not to take personally. I was thinking I would ask everyone, ‘Who is missing?’ Not only Elijah. Whose cup is not filled, but whose seat is not taken? Put that person’s picture in the middle of the seder table.’”
Abigail Pogrebin, a journalist, author and public speaker who lives in New York, is a regular contributor to the Forward. Follow her on Twitter @apogrebin
Six rabbis reflect Passover in this different year
Abigail Pogrebin has become a rare voice among American Jews, as a journalist and an explorer who shares with refreshing wit and candor her path to finding a meaningful Jewish life.