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A night like one other night

This year, just as on that first Passover, disaster lurks nearby; and now, as then, there's comfort to be found in rules and rituals
Illustration: Avi Katz
Illustration: Avi Katz

How silly it must have felt to eat the Passover offering for the first time those thousands of years ago. Dressed in your going out clothes, staff in hand, bags packed, rushing through your meal as if you had somewhere to be. But really there was nowhere to be. In fact the reality was that you had barricaded yourself in your home and painted signs on the inner doorpost, hoping that the invisible threat that floated through the Egyptian air that night would not touch your house.

How comforting it must have been to have a list of instructions on a night when such disaster was anticipated; when there would be no house untouched by the mysterious contagion. What a gift to be able to answer the question, “so what should I do?” as you waited, a bystander, to observe the inevitable outcry and the deaths and the pain and the unknown. To be able to meditate on the minutest detail as you performed the Passover rites, eyes following the rotation of the revolving spit, an intention keeping you in the moment. One foot in front of the other, you follow the steps. Paint the door. Bake the Matzah. Prepare the bitter herb. If you just hold tightly to the instructions and follow all the rules then everything will be ok.

Will it? How many times had God already wreaked havoc on Egypt – to no avail. How many times had Pharaoh looked coldly into the eyes of his terrified courtiers and astounded them with his iron will. Your concentration slips for a moment, and you look around self consciously at those around you in their sandals and skins, hope in their eyes. And the reality seeps in. Will this even work? The preparations, the instructions, the rules, the guidelines. Will any of it even matter?

When I open my Haggadah this year at the seder, the text will proclaim that my night is different from all other nights. And in so many ways it will be right. My Pesach this year will be different from all other nights, and all other Pesachs. Except for one.

This Pesach I will barricade myself indoors with my family. I will clean the house, bake the matzah, prepare the bitter herb, all against the hum of anxiety and confusion that will float like a soundtrack for my every move. I will follow the rules, the guidelines and the instructions of the higher ups hoping that my efforts will make some difference. I will sit down at my table, dressed like there is somewhere to be. I will perform the rituals and the signs and try to find a moment of peace and redemption through their familiarity despite the uncertainty of what is to come, all the while praying that the invisible threat lurking outside will not touch my house.

About the Author
Racheli Barris has an MA in Bible from Bernard Revel Graduate School of Judaic Studies as well as an MA in Biblical and Talmudic Interpretation from Stern College for Women. Currently, she teaches Tanakh at SAR High School in Riverdale.
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