At the beginning of the Magid section of the Haggadah, we declare in the familiar Ha Lachma Anya: “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All those who are hungry, let them enter and eat. All who are in need, let them come celebrate the Passover. Now we are here. Next year in the land of Israel. This year we are enslaved. Next year we will be free.”
This is a lot to unpack during this year’s Pesach in the midst of the global Coronavirus pandemic which we will be spending, perhaps for the first time, with just our immediate family, without grandparents, grandchildren, siblings, cousins or friends.
These intimate Seders will be held throughout the Jewish world, where the majority of Jews, whether in Israel, the U.S., Europe or elsewhere, will be held in total or almost total lockdown.
Perhaps in this near isolation from wider family, friends and neighbors we can find a sense of unity and solidarity.
We will be challenged to find connection, balance and the need to remain strong. This is not only our personal test of character; it is a test of humanity which is suffering from this global health crisis and its attending economic and social declines.
The difference is that for most of us, we know that there will be a day after. This crisis will end, the world will return to some semblance of normal, the question is only when.
By next year’s Seder, we will be free.
So, perhaps we can use this time to consider those less fortunate than us and consider how we can best use this time to help them, and we can start from a focus on community.
We can start by using our nation’s history.
The Jewish People only survived our travails and torment because of community, because we learned that all those who are in need should join us, no one should be alone or left behind.
This solidarity has been the foundational pillar of Jewish survival.
The Jewish People, like many other nations, have their military and political heroes, but more than them, we are taught to admire those who felt the pull of communal solidarity and peoplehood.
Those like Dona Gracia and Moses Montefiore were committed to the welfare of their community regardless of geography and are rightly lauded and remembered.
Before there was The Giving Pledge, the campaign launched by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families, there were the biblical injunctions of tzedakah, the pursuit of justice or righteousness, and tikkun olam, the mandate to be constantly repairing a broken world.
As Jews we were biblically commanded to tithe and set aside a portion of our farm and yields for the poor. Today, each individual is still instructed to provide a minimum amount of their earnings to charity.
The values of community among the Jewish People run strong.
We are commanded to visit the sick, to form a quorum for prayer, to accompany the bride to the wedding canopy and the dead to their final resting place.
At this time, we can do none of these seemingly simple acts.
However, we can join the millions of Jews around the world, secular, traditional or religious, who find comfort in the tradition of the Passover Seder, if not physically, then at least in essence and unity.
We will all read the same ancient texts of how we became a people that left captivity and suffering and will be forever bonded one to the other.
For the first time as a people we were free. Free to set our own time and our own pace to life.
This year we will not have these freedoms, and this deprivation from our community is unnatural to the Jewish spirit.
This year we can be free in a different sense. Free to see things differently. Free to choose that the isolation is only a physical one and that those same values of community, chessed, and tzedaka are needed more than ever. We must choose to be innovative in how we ensure that these values guide us, remain at our core and are spread as a light unto people, even from within isolation.
We can see this as a time of positive challenge for our people, a time of introspection, a time to consider if we are going through rote practices, or if our traditions retain the meaning they were originally imbued with.
Isolation is the opposite of community and this year we are forbidden from opening our physical doors to the hungry and the needy.
Especially in time of isolation, while our physical doors must remain closed, we must open the doors of our hearts and minds- we need to remain committed to our core values, which are more poignant and palpable than ever before. We need to find new ways to strengthen our communities, even from behind closed doors, to care for the sick, the elderly, the needy and the lonely. We are faced with the challenge of ensuring the door is still felt as an open one despite the physical difference.
We ask why this night is different from all the other nights. It is different. It is different though, not because our values have changed, but because we are forced to integrate them into our lives in a different way. We must rise to this challenge.
The doors will sadly remain closed for a little while longer, but certainly not indefinitely. Once they open again, our hearts and minds will be stronger and will have learned how to continue to be challenged for the good.
This is the challenge of this year’s Passover Seder.