A Covid year Seder: New symbols for the table

Shards of Matza - Credit: Joel Alter

The Seder’s symbols recall the past: Haroset — for the mortar of the bricks; Maror — for the bitterness of slavery. Yet one of the Seder’s gifts is seeking present meaning in our deep dive into ancient Egypt. Feel (taste!) the enervating tedium of making mud bricks under Egypt’s blazing sun, yes. But reflect also on the brick-like tasks we pursue, all in service of someone else’s project. The sting of the horseradish needs to conjure up ancient injustice, yes. It needs also to jolt us into tasting the bitterness of many people’s lives today.

How disheartening to anticipate a second Pesach in the pandemic! (Mah midakkeh ha’laila ha’zeh!) I know well that for many of us, noisy, crowded Seders are essential markers of our Jewish lives. Our Seders at once float above time and also document its passage, like an album of successive years’ school photos. Our Seders grow and contract with the ebbing and flowing rosters of our family and friends. We fortify tradition through our Seders. We honor God by them. And we feel bereft without them.

The symbols of the Seder are always important, but perhaps this year the symbols are still more important. Because this year we struggle to muster the energy to make Seder on Zoom, or with a very few vaccinated others, or alone yet again. Symbols are physical poetry, and we all need to be poets this year. The losses of this pandemic — including but far beyond its vast illness and death — are too great to express even in a skillfully-worded addition to the Haggadah. We need to summon our creativity as we reflect on the pandemic and how it maps on to Passover’s themes of oppression and liberation. How might we render our insights into symbolic language that speaks to right now?

Some suggestions:

Is that a mask on your doorpost? Our ancestors smeared blood on the doorposts and lintel of their homes to direct the Destroyer to pass over them in the killing of the firstborn. With that blood, they warded off the plague. Perhaps this year we should adorn our doorposts with face masks.

Yahatz: Among our first acts at the Seder is breaking the middle matza in two, hiding the larger piece for the Afikoman and putting the smaller piece back for the mitzvah of eating matza, later. Including that broken matza in the motzi blessing dramatically symbolizes the brokenness and impoverishment of slavery. This year, before putting the half-matza back, perhaps we should break it into little bits, to further symbolize the brittleness of this year and our diminishment from it. When the meal begins, we’d recite the matza blessings over two whole pieces, as ever, but also over a pile of matza shards, a powerful symbol of what cannot be recovered from the Year of Covid.

New haroset? Time and space have lost much definition this past year. One day has seemed no different from the last, and we’ve often been confined to the four walls of our homes. Might we convey this monotony by making a second, bland Haroset? Perhaps a tasteless paste of matza meal and water?

Ten drops, and then some: We remove ten finger-dips of wine from of our glasses when we recite the ten plagues. We acknowledge our oppressors’ pain as the price of our liberation by diminishing our joy. Perhaps this year we should spill out most of the glass of wine into a dedicated bowl, leaving just the minimum to drink for the mitzvah, to symbolize the global grief of millions of deaths from Covid-19? On the other hand, at least the plagues brought liberation. Consider, what have Covid’s losses brought?

The screen of liberation: Zoom, and the connection enabled by our devices, has been a lifesaver for many of us this year. Perhaps we should build a platform out of our phones, laptops, and tablets and place Elijah’s Cup upon it.

Slam! I love opening the door for Elijah. The traditional passage is a strikingly harsh condemnation of our oppressors. More deeply, it calls out those who are blind to what God’s Oneness teaches — the unity of humankind. At the open door, we sing Eliyahu haNavi, all the while holding Elijah’s Cup. We condemn human enmity while raising a glass to a redeemed future. Perhaps this year, considering the extraordinary enmity and division in our society, we should modify this portion of the Seder. I’m considering slamming the door hard before opening it again gently so I may prayerfully invoke Elijah.

The syringe of springtime: Karpas, the green vegetable we dip in salt water, symbolizes the renewal of springtime and the promise of liberation. Perhaps this year we should wrap one sprig of parsley around a syringe (to display but not eat!) to symbolize the renewal made possible by the vaccine. New life, indeed!

This year, try to be poets and develop your own new symbols to tell our pandemic stories. Of course, we need also to give full attention to the story of our slavery in Egypt. It’s in telling both that Passover’s power lies.

About the Author
Rabbi Joel Alter has served Milwaukee's Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid since 2018.
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