Every year during the Pesach seder, we ask the same question: Mah Nishtanah HaLailah Hazeh? What is different about this night from all other nights? This year, my knee-jerk reaction is to laugh, or maybe to cry; is anything about this night like all other nights? Bemoaning the changes to my Pesach plans feels self-indulgent in light of the unimaginable ways that Coronavirus is changing the world, but I still feel acutely sad. Instead of flying to Chicago to celebrate with my extended family, my fiancé and I will have a seder-for-two in our Boston apartment, where the only little ones searching for afikomen crumbs will be our cats. Our usual seder is big, loud, and full of songs. My 94-year-old grandpa bursts into the room to sing and dance to “Let My People Go” while wearing a Pharaoh mask, my uncle recites a deadpan Dr. Seuss version of the Four Questions, and the rest of us butt in with contributions that inevitably reflect our political leanings. Preparing for our micro-seder in the absence of all these people and elements has me wondering if any part of this year’s holiday will feel remotely familiar.
Our primary question is broken into four distinct ways in which seder night differs from every other night of the year. The first of the Four Questions begins with “Sheb’khol haleilot anu okhlin hametz umatzah; halailah hazeh, kuloh matzah.” For the eight (seven if you’re lucky) nights of Pesach, we replace our usual pasta and oatmeal with matzah and an assortment of mediocre grain substitutes. I have been spoiled for the past several years, giddily putting my independent adulthood on hold for eight days each spring to spend the entirety of Pesach with my family, saving me the hassle of shopping, cooking, and kashering. Like so many others, this year we canceled our plans at the last minute, forcing me to hurriedly execute a plan for how to feed ourselves for the holiday. Even though I have spent Pesach in places where it is much more difficult to find kosher l’Pesach food, eating little more than matzah and fresh fruit in places like Mozambique and Thailand, somehow this year feels harder. With limited kosher l’Pesach cookware and mental energy to plan complex dishes, our seder meal will be simple and I will certainly be eating more matzah than usual.
The second question moves us from non-perishables to perishables, with “Sheb’khol haleilot anu okhlin sh’ar y’rakot; halailah hazeh, maror.” It is hard not to interpret this literally and lean into the bitterness of this particular moment in time. The picked-apart grocery shelves are a weekly reminder of how Coronavirus is inducing widespread fear and panic. Too many people already experienced housing and food insecurity, and tragically millions more are now uncertain of how to pay their next rent check or grocery bill. Despite being a lover of spicy food, I’m a wimp when it comes to horseradish, generally using only a tiny slice and slathering it in sweet charoset when that moment arrives in the Seder. Maybe this year that is exactly the right approach. We cannot look away from the pain and suffering that this virus is causing, nor should we. But we can also highlight the stories of sweetness and strength, and of friends, families, and communities showing up for each other in this time of crisis.
I have always wondered about the third question: “Sheb’khol haleilot ein anu matbilin afilu pa’am ehat; halailah hazeh, shtei p’amim.” Jews love to dissect the tiniest of details, but of all the things to ponder or analogize at the seder, why do we care about dipping? I always thought of this as none too meaningful, just another part of the seder machinery. This year, these seemingly inconsequential details of the seder feel more important than usual, as I take stock of all the elements of my daily life that I took for granted before this month. I am ashamed that I have never fully appreciated the contributions and sacrifices of the individuals who bag my groceries, take my blood pressure at the doctor’s office, prepare my dinner at restaurants, keep our trains and stoves functioning, and so many more. This year, I can appreciate that each piece of the seder adds something meaningful, even if it is not a show-stopping highlight of the night. I hope to keep this idea in the front of my mind during Pesach and beyond, and consider what I can do in the future to ensure that all people are respected for the fundamental role they play in our society.
And lastly, we sit back and say, “Sheb’khol haleilot anu okhlin bein yoshvin uvein m’subin; halailah hazeh, kulanu m’subin.” This has always felt like the big finale. We recline and celebrate that we are free. If one theme exerts itself year after year at the Pesach seder, it is freedom. Each year seems to bring some new interpretation of what that means in a modern age, usually based on the social and political landscape of the moment. I have participated in sedarim with lively conversation around freedom of movement, freedom to vote, freedom from technology, freedom from restrictive traditions that do not align with our modern ideologies, and on and on. This year, my many privileges and freedoms are being thrown into extra-sharp relief. The simple fact of being able to prepare a meal in my home with my partner reflects the multitude of ways in which I am shielded from some of the worst effects of this pandemic. In preparation for our small seder and to sort through my jumbled thoughts, I joined a Zoom call with members of our minyan to source ideas and inspiration. At the beginning of the call, the leader asked us to jot down our goals for our seder. I had never thought about that before; my grandpa has led our family seders since long before I was born, and my brother-in-law the rabbi is now his co-leader. Leafing through our Haggadot (one of which is “The (unofficial) Hogwarts Haggadah”), I am considering what would make this Pesach most meaningful for us. Unexpectedly, I’ve been bestowed an odd freedom—to do things my way, to mess up, to lengthen and shorten within halachic bounds, and maybe even to sit in silence for a while. I will ask questions that relate directly to both the Pesach story and the pandemic in which we are living. What does it mean to be a nation in crisis with an uncertain future? How can a leader unify people who are scared and skeptical? Pesach is a story of two classes of people with different sets of rights, and these same fault lines are being exposed in our own society, so how do we confront this fundamental indignity?
While this year’s seder will be unique in many ways, much of the seder is constant from year to year, no matter how our surroundings or companions change. This year, we can take comfort in the constancy of the Pesach story and our collective resilience in continuing to have sedarim around the globe. Even though the days seem to blur together the longer we are home-bound, we can still make seder night different from our other nights, and hopefully use it as an opportunity for reflection and re-centering. Maybe you will step into a role that is new to you, create a twist on a long-held family tradition, or add a new element altogether. This year I will join other vegetarians in replacing the shank bone on my seder plate with a beet, something my carnivorous family would never do. But when we reach the Korekh section and declare that the Pesach sacrifice should be eaten on matzah and maror, I will say the word “Yo’chlu’hu” in a silly yodeling voice, just like my grandma always did, knowing that my siblings and cousins will do the same at their own sedarim in four different time zones.
My goal for our seder this year is to breathe deeply, ask new questions, and reframe our concept of freedom. We may be restrained in innumerable ways right now, but we are free to call and FaceTime with loved ones, virtually strengthen our Jewish communities, support those who are in mourning, and commit to actions within our reach to support individuals working on the front lines. Next year, what will we tell our children about Pesach 2020, and the actions it inspired us to take?
Chag kasher v’sameach.