My father’s 99-year-old cousin lives in London by herself and was planning to be celebrating her 100th birthday after Pesach with her family. I called her from Jerusalem.
“I was born during the depression, my parents were murdered during the Holocaust, I lived by myself through World War Two, survived a plane crash and experienced the upheavals in Rhodesia, but this is all new to me,” she said. And then she added: “This is the first time in my life that I will be celebrating Seder on my own”.
“So what do we do now?” asked my adult children, on hearing the announcement two long weeks ago, that we are all restricted to our homes.
“I have no idea” I answered, “This is all new to me.”
Here in Israel it is a daily struggle to stay abreast of the new proclamations and understand what they mean. How many people can attend a wedding or a funeral? How many meters can we wander from our home? Now a new edict mandating covering our noses and mouths when we are outside.
The most intrusive direction that we have received is that we will be celebrating our Seder only with our nuclear family who live in our home.
What does that mean?
Does it really mean that many hundreds and thousands of us will be sitting down to Seder with one, two or three people. Families are reduced to their nucleus. Is this really going to happen?
Somehow, for many, these extremely clear instructions have been reduced to mere guidance. Just one person more. How can we leave him or her by themselves? Just one other couple and it will be fine. We can separate in the house or in the garden.
How did this happen? Why are we not following directions? How dangerous is it to make just one small exception?
In 1997, my father of blessed memory, was very ill with cancer. At the same time, after spending years refusing to do so, the Swiss Banks had released a list of dormant Swiss bank accounts whose owners had been murdered during the Holocaust. One of the accounts bore the name of my grandfather. I spoke to my father about this and he reacted with skepticism. Although he did not prevent me from filling out the forms, I remember clearly his words which he spoke with difficulty because of his illness:
“It is a waste of time. As German Citizens we were forbidden to hold foreign bank accounts and Dad would never have done anything against the law.”
I filled in the paperwork and in doing the research, I discovered letters that my parents had written to each other while they were courting, letters which were a comfort in my father’s final days. And yes, a few months after my father’s death, we received information that the bank account did not belong to my grandfather.
As Jews we are commanded to obey the law of the land. “Dina De Malchuta Dina” applied in the old Yekkeh world no matter what.
A memory shared by my father’s first cousin, Walter, who was like a brother to my father. Walter told us that when they were 15 year old boys he had been “schlepped” by my Dad to a Jewish summer camp in Switzerland. The day after they arrived my father turned to him and told him that they were leaving and returning home to Germany. When Walter asked for an explanation, my father told him that he heard that the camp was secretly ritually slaughtering chickens (Shchita) in the cellar – contrary to Swiss law. My father was unwilling to attend camp when those in charge were breaking the law and then when the law was clearly an ass.
So do we adhere to the letter of the law and restrict our Seder to our nuclear family who live in our house? The answer is a resounding yes.
It would be enough because of Dina De Malchuta Dina.
And it would be enough because we are living in a Jewish country.
And it would be enough because we are all warriors fighting a deadly virus.
And it would be enough to know that absolute isolation is central to winning this battle.
And it would be enough to be told that breaking this law is likely to lead to more victims and deaths.
And it would be enough to know that we are heading to a situation where doctors will have to decide who will be treated and who will not be treated.
And it would be enough to look no further then to New York, London, Milan and Madrid to understand the grave danger that awaits us.
Before me, I see my father’s bewildered face. Why would we not be obeying the letter of the law. If this was true when the law was unjust and anti-semitic, then how much more so it is true today.
Deviating, even an iota, from the instructions about this year’s Seder may mean that many of us (or others) will never have another Seder again.
Restraint this year will save lives.
Next year in Jerusalem, together and healthy.