Daily, we recite the following talmudic passage in our morning prayers:
These are the actions whose fruits we eat in this world but whose full reward awaits us in the World to Come: honoring parents; acts of kindness; arriving early at the house of study morning and evening; hospitality to strangers; visiting the sick; helping the needy bride; attending to the dead; devotion in prayer; and bringing peace between people – but the study of Torah is equal to them all. (Sabbath 127a)
Most, and arguably all, of these fundamental Jewish values involve engaging with other people. The medical strategy against the spreading of coronavirus, namely keeping people distant from one another, is thus particularly painful to our nation. Beyond the mental agony caused by isolation, social distancing vigorously tears apart the very fabric of who we are. The institutions that fuel our existence; schools, synagogues, communities, celebrations, kindness, and more, are severely undermined.
I wonder if timing could have been worse. Weeks before Pesach, when we celebrate our freedom in the company of friends, families and even strangers, it is now clear that plans must be cancelled. If exile is usually described as the expulsion from home, it now has a new meaning. We are being exiled into our homes, where we will celebrate our annual Seder in the absence of welcomed company.
Several weeks before Yom Tov, I often ask our community to ensure that no friend, neighbor, relative, or anyone else, remains alone for a Yom Tov meal. From the pulpit, I quote the harsh words of Maimonides which require little additional elaboration:
When one dines [on Yom Tov], one must also feed the stranger, orphan, widow, the poor, and the brokenhearted. One who locks the gates of his or her property, and dines with his or her family, but does not share the festive meal with the impoverished and sorrowful, is not rejoicing in the joy of the Mitzvah [on Yom Tov] but rather the delight of his or her appetite! (Maimonides Laws of Yom Tov, Chapter 6, Law 18)
Especially on Pesach, this principle is particularly paramount. In addition to the biblical encouragement to celebrate Pesach with family (see Exodus 12:21) and to share the story of our miraculous journey from Egypt to freedom with our children, we declare early in the Seder an open and unconditional invitation welcoming anyone to join us at our Seder:
This is the bread of oppression our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come in and eat; let all who are in need come and join us for the Pesach. Now we are here; next year in the land of Israel. Now – slaves; next year we shall be free. (Ha lachma anya, Haggada of Pesach)
Although the historical context and motives under which the passage of Ha lachma anya entered the Haggada is unclear, the end result is nevertheless profound. For centuries, our nation began the Seder, our oldest and greatest national educational project and the most meaningful experience in the formation of our identity, with a genuine desire to share our festivity with others.
As a traditionalist, I would never suggest we change our text, even if only for one year. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore how the traditionally declared open invitation will not be genuine or sincere this year. In fact, we are regretfully canceling invitations and, perhaps unprecedently, isolating ourselves into maximum solitude. Consequently, this years’ Seder will be tragically different from all other Sedarim. Surely, our Seder should somehow express both our pain as well as our yearning for a more companionable Seder already next year.
Although the circumstances are incomparable, I draw inspiration from a prayer originating in Bergen-Belsen. In 1944, starving inmates had no Matzah to eat. Instead, they had to eat the little available Chametz in order to survive. This is why and how a heartbreaking prayer was composed and recited:
Before eating Chametz say the following with intent and devotion:
Our Father in Heaven! It is known to You that we desire to fulfill Your will and observe the Passover holiday by eating Matzah and safeguarding against Chametz. But our hearts are pained at the captivity which prevents us, and we find ourselves in danger of our lives. We are hereby ready to fulfill Your commandments ‘And you shall live by them (the commandments)’ and not die by them, and to observe the caution of ‘guard yourself and watch your soul/life very much’. Therefore, our prayer to You is that You keep us alive, and sustain us, and redeem us speedily, so that we may observe Your laws and fulfill Your will and serve You with a full heart. Amen! (Prayer for Eating Chametz on Passover, Bergen Belsen 1944)
Perhaps we can learn from their saintly love of Mitzvoth, honorable fear of G-d, and admirable appreciation of the sacred value of life. In all deserving reverence to their legacy, can we humbly model a prayer for our seder, taking place during worrying and turbulent times, upon their prayer?
Before starting the Seder say the following with intent and devotion:
Our Father in Heaven! It is known to You that we desire to fulfill Your will and observe the Passover holiday by joyfully sharing our celebration with family, friends, and strangers. But our hearts are pained at the spreading virus, and we find ourselves in danger of our lives. We are hereby ready to fulfill Your commandments ‘And you shall live by them (the commandments)’ and not die by them, and to observe the caution of ‘guard yourself and watch your soul/life very much.’ Therefore, our prayer to You is that You keep us alive, and sustain us, and redeem us speedily, so that we may observe Your laws and fulfill Your will and serve You with a full heart. Amen! (Prayer for a Pesach Seder, 2020)
לפני תחילת הסדר יאמר בכוונת הלב:
אבינו שבשמים הנה גלוי וידוע לפניך שרצוננו לעשות רצונך ולחג את חג הפסח במצוות הכנסת אורחים, דיבוק חברים, קירוב בני משפחה, כיבוד אב ואם וזקנים, והזמנת עניים ואומללים, אך על זאת דאבה לבנו שהמגפה מעכבת אותנו ואנחנו נמצאים בסכנת נפשות. הננו מוכנים ומזומנים לקיים מצותיך וחי בהם ולא שימות בהם, וליזהר מאזהרה ‘הזהר לך ושמור נפשך מאוד’. על כן תפילותינו לך שתחיינו ותקיימנו ותגאלנו במהרה לשמור חוקיך ולעשות רצונך ולעבדך בלבב שלם, אמן. (תפילה לפני תחילת סדר ללא אורחים תש”פ)