The Jewish calendar waits for no one and no thing. Coronavirus or no, we will be gathering around our tables next week to celebrate our freedom as a people on Passover. But this holiday will feel different for so many. Pesach, the most celebrated home ritual in Jewish life, will be observed this year at a time when we are all home, but the circumstances are so unusual.
For many, Passover is a time to go to someone else’s house: your childhood home with your parents, a beloved relative who makes great matzo ball soup, friends who host raucous Seders. This year so many who join in these warm communal gathering will have to be solo.
The first thing we should do in this situation is to acknowledge our grief and mourn the loss of our ability to be together with family and friends on such an important day. The next thing we need to do is go to plan B. Our situation is not ideal, but we need to make the best of it and adapt.
Recently I was reading about the Prato Haggadah, an important medieval manuscript housed at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The 14th century document is typical of Haggadot from its time in Spain which include the liturgy of Passover evening but exclude the sections related to the meal. Scholars believe that these Haggadot were used in the synagogue, not the home. The text was read out for the congregation and then families would go home separately for the meal.
One can understand that before the invention of printing, books were rare and expensive. Families may not be able to afford either their own Haggadah or their own Seder, so they could fulfill the obligation of recounting the story of the Exodus as a community and then have a modest meal. It may not be an ideal solution, but it works.
Similarly this year, our Zoom or FaceTime Seders will miss the possibilities that are available in person. As someone who has led many a Seder, I am struggling to come up with engaging activities when I can’t do, for example, a fun game involving pieces of paper under everyone’s plate. At the same time, we will find a way to make this Passover meaningful, as we always have.
The Haggadah requires us to feel as if we ourselves went out of Egypt. To do that each year we relate our current circumstances to the Exodus story, and 2020 is no different. Perhaps we will be able to relate more tangibly to the plagues. We all know the terrible challenges of confinement and limited freedom of movement felt by the Israelite slaves. And we can certainly understand the uncertainty and fear of the unknown they experienced.
This crisis will make us better people and better Jews because it forces us to appreciate what we have and look in new ways at the things we used to take for granted. I pray that while we may be physically isolated, this Passover be one of spiritual freedom and creativity for you, your family, and our entire people.