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Compassion, courage, patience, joy: Four (new) Questions to ask ourselves this Passover

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On the way to the Women’s Seder at our synagogue last night, my 14-year-old daughter and I warned each other to keep our expectations in check.

The annual pre-Passover event had been a signature highlight in the Before Times: feminists across four generations reinterpreting rituals and sharing stories, with a wild round of “dancing with the timbrels” to “Miriam’s Song” that we both loved and loved to poke fun at.

We’d missed it these past two pandemic years, giggled often about those timbrels, with each other and with our respective synagogue-friend circles. But we have changed, the world has changed, some of our friends had conflicts or COVID concerns. Could it possibly live up to our memories?

We arrived in a driving rain to a darkened lobby. A greeter offered salted black-licorice candies from Amsterdam (via Amazon), I think meant to represent fish in the Red Sea. I popped one in my mouth, forgetting I don’t like black licorice, and rushed to find a trash can.

Then we were ushered through the “sea” — streamers in various shades of blue hung from a doorway — into a room full of women, timbrels and expectations.

The Women’s Seder is led by Cantor Meredith Greenberg who is the main reason our family chose this synagogue, Temple Ner Tamid of Bloomfield, New Jersey, when we moved back to the U.S. from Jerusalem in 2016. Cantor Meri, as she is universally known, matches her remarkable voice with a humongous heart and a searching intellect. She is my teacher, my neighbor, my friend. And she really brings it for the Women’s Seder.

At the center of the room was a homemade chuppah, a surprise given this was a Seder, not a wedding; Meri’s explanation: “its openness on all sides reminds us that we can let so much grow even from pain and challenge.” Under the chuppah was an artfully constructed pile of bare branches, and at the foot of each pole, a plate of tiny, colorful paper blossoms.

The branches would not stay bare for long. In a twist on the Seder’s traditional Four Questions, Meri challenged us after each cup of wine to ask ourselves how we had personally grown during the pandemic in compassion, courage, patience and joy. For each, we would add a blossom to a branch, creating a collective artwork.

It’s all a little woo-woo for me, honestly — I’m like the “skeptical child” in the haggadah we were using, which re-imagines the traditional “Four Sons” as it does many other sections, both to include all genders and to connect the ancient text to contemporary issues.

But I try to play along, and found myself thinking beyond my own experience to the way these critical characteristics have been on display in the world.

Compassion: I placed my red flower onto the centerpiece thinking about how volunteering every week at a local food pantry has expanded my empathy for everyone who struggles to feed their families. That, of course, pales in comparison to the seemingly bottomless compassion that health-care workers of all kinds have shown throughout this seemingly endless crisis toward the sick and the scared.

Courage: Many readers praised my courage in writing my abortion story last year, so I felt I’d earned the purple flower I added for this one. Though it is nothing compared to the courage on display in the streets of Ukraine every day since Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24. The ordinary citizens who have taken up arms. The refugees who are forging ahead to frame their next chapters amid daunting unknowns.

Cantor Meredith Greenberg (Cantor Meri) of Temple Ner Tamid of Bloomfield, New Jersey.

Cantor Meredith Greenberg (Cantor Meri) of Temple Ner Tamid of Bloomfield, New Jersey. By Jodi Rudoren

And, yes, above all, the comedian-turned-president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a real-life, modern-day David standing up to the Goliaths of the world, day and night, for more than six weeks now.

Patience: Alas, I do not think I have grown in patience these past two years; I am not nearly patient enough with my son, my husband, my colleagues or the pace of change. But I nonetheless added a blue flower as a tribute to two of my best synagogue friends, sisters who have been remarkably patient in managing their parents’ decline.

And I realized as I did so that our collective, communal pandemic response — from lockdown to remote work and school, with mask-mandates and Zoom-mitzvahs, flattening the curve and supporting local businesses, all of it — is an act of extreme patience. We have slowed down, we have put off, we have weighed risks, we have taken care, we will wait this out.

Joy: My daughter and I rushed to put our yellow flowers on the branches, because we know how much we’ve expanded the joy we take in each other through this time. Joy in cooking and baking, joy in long walks and deep talks, joy in binge-watching and deconstructing “Gilmore Girls,” joy — and, yes, all the other feels, too — in her transformation from child to young woman.

Then I paused to think about the 6 million people who have died from COVID-19 worldwide, and how their families’ joy can only have been diminished.

Another staple of our Women’s Seder is that Cantor Meri asks four women of different ages and life stages to speak on the same theme. This year: what they had lost and what they had gained during the pandemic.

A new grandmother talked about having missed the early months of her first grandchild’s life. A woman who had lived alone for years shared the surprising benefits of her 30-year-old son moving back home at the onset of the pandemic — and staying to this day. A young mother challenged the conventional wisdom about a generation deprived of childhood, saying, “It’s just different — they are the COVID kids.”

One of my daughter’s closest friends, Isabelle Lawyer, was the last to speak. “Picture this,” she began. “The world shuts down because of a global pandemic, and my bat mitzvah is a week away.” True story. She postponed, and had a glorious outdoor celebration during a break between surges last year.

Isabelle, who is 15 and goes by Izzy, is an extreme extrovert, and said she deeply missed parties and concerts — but came to appreciate board games and backyard hangs with her little brother and her dad, who stopped commuting to the city.

“Before COVID, I never had time for the closest people in my life,” Izzy said. As for other lessons learned, she added: “Never take anything for granted — even toilet paper.”

Your Turn: Four New Passover Questions

I don’t have little paper blossoms for you, but I’d love to hear your responses to Cantor Meri’s challenge. How have you personally grown in compassion, courage, patience or joy through these difficult years? And what examples do you see of those attributes around you? We welcome your thoughts; we may publish selections.

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