In the midst of crisis the greatest gift we have as human beings is the ability to hope. In spite of whatever darkness surrounds us, we can choose to believe that better things are ahead. This impulse to search for future redemption is beautifully captured in the traditional Passover Seder. As we recall God bringing our ancestors out of terrible oppression in Egypt, we hope that God will free us from our current and future troubles.
While Passover in a time of pandemic has created stress as we try to prepare for a major holiday in such challenging situations, it is also a golden opportunity to access some of the ritual power of our celebration of redemption. In particular, the ending of the Seder, which sadly many skip because it comes after we are stuffed from the meal, is filled with moments of hope.
Traditionally, Elijah the prophet visits our homes on Passover and we pour a cup for him to drink. Many jokes have already been told about how, this year, Elijah is either the only guest we are willing to let in our homes, or someone we want to keep out because he has already been in contact with too many other people. But on a serious note, Elijah is a symbol of a hope for the future. In Jewish tradition he is the harbinger of the Messiah who will come to announce God’s redemption.
This year we can add even more meaning to the moment we open our doors for Elijah. Noam Zion and Mishael Zion have put together a beautiful Coronavirus Seder Planner filled with activities, readings, and suggestions for this year. They include a quote from a kibbutz educator who writes:
Every time I hesitate on a major question, I ask the advice of two people: my grandfather — for his opinion, and my grandson — how will the decision affect his future? It’s important to me that in answering any question, I consider both previous generations and possible effects on the future ones; not merely my own immediate future, but the farthest foreseeable unfolding of events.
As Jews we live in that tension between wanting to honor the past but also considering how to thrive in the future. This year we feel the challenge of holding those two values in balance with even greater urgency because of social distancing. Usually our Seders are intergenerational, with all ages, young and old, mixed together, but now such a gathering would be dangerous. Instead we will have to be extra creative in bringing the generations together online.
One way to do that is a ritual suggested in the Coronavirus Seder Planner:
The Hassidic Rebbe Naftali Tzvi Horowitz (Poland) used to go around the Seder table inviting each participant to pour from their personal cup into Elijah’s cup … In some families, each participant helps to fill Elijah’s cup of future redemption, while, silently or aloud, making a particular wish for a better year. May it come true with our own initiative and then with God’s help.
While we may not be able to pour our wine into one Elijah’s cup over Zoom, we can do so symbolically and then share our wishes for the future.
My wife Lisa’s family always ended their Seders with Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah as a way to culminate the story of our people’s search for freedom with a link to the creation of a Jewish state. We have included the tradition in our family Seders, but this year, the song, which means “The Hope”, will have a new resonance as we to look to better days. I know I will be singing with gusto: “od lo avdah tikvatenu, our hope is not yet lost!”