The seders this year

Now we’re what? Three weeks into this? Time really is starting to blur.

It’s probably easier for me to keep track of time then it is for some other people, because putting out a weekly newspaper means keeping to a rigid schedule, where every weekday has its own rhythm. We write on Monday, build toward all-day-and-into-the-night production on Tuesday, finally get the paper out and then collapse on Wednesday, then start again, with increasing concentration, on Thursday and then Friday morning, and then let it go (as if, really, but whatever) as Shabbat approaches.

But still, at home, everything sort of drips into everything else. It’s life as a Salvador Dali painting.

Now, though, there is a change. Pesach is coming. Pesach as we’ve never known it before.

I have shared the seder with my family, the same family, as we’ve aged and the older generations have dropped away on top of us and younger ones flourish and rollick below. But not this year.

We are going to Zoom. And we — all 25 or so of us — have sworn to each other that if it’s not next year in Jerusalem, at least it will be next year on the Upper West Side.

But still, but for all of us, it will be a sad and sparse seder. Every year we see some empty chairs, at least metaphorically; this year, they’ll be empty for real.

As some local rabbis have pointed out, the story the haggadah tells us ends happily, but it doesn’t start that way.

“I think that essentially this year we are going into the seder as slaves, and we know that we will come out as slaves,” my friend Elana Weinberg told me, on Zoom. “It’s a different kind of slavery, but still. And it makes us take heed of the blessings that we always have had.”

It’s hard to look at it that way right now, at least for me. The news is far too frightening. I do not recognize this feeling of there being no good news. The infection rates are going up, the death rates are going up, the health-care professionals who protect us heroically are being stricken, the stores of equipment are running out. There is no leadership on the federal level; states increasingly are having to fight each other, as if they were marauding hill tribes in the Highlands. (Okay, I can amuse myself by imagining Andrew Cuomo as a Scottish warrior. At least there’s still that.)

As Rabbi David Fine tells us, the Israelites hid inside that last night before they were allowed to leave Egypt because the Angel of Death was outside. Staying home kept them safe. The parallel is striking. Like the Angel of Death, the virus is not human; it’s not even really alive, not in any way that we understand as life, not even in the way that a bacterium is alive. (Although bacteria really don’t have much in the way of quality of life.) It’s just a thing, an infinitesimally small thing, that doesn’t wish us dead because it can’t wish anything, but nonetheless kills off some fraction of us. And unlike the Angel of Death, the virus is not a metaphor. It’s entirely real

The virus doesn’t care if it’s dark or light out, but it does try to exploit us through our relationships. And we can outsmart it. We can maintain our connections with other people, we can nurture them, and eventually it will be gone and we still will be here.

Before that, though, there is Pesach. Elana is right. We will go into it enslaved and come out ensnared in the same chains, caught by the same absolute need for social distancing, that we will have going into it. Our material situation is unlikely to change much; our highest-ranking leaders are unlikely to develop wisdom and compassion in the next week and a half. But just because freedom is a little farther away than we’d like it to be, it doesn’t mean that it’s not there.

Once this is over, we will take our newfound technical skills and understanding of how to forge relationships, and we will be better and stronger.

Next year, let us all be free. Next year, may we all be back at our family’s seder tables, adding to the wine stains on the haggadahs and the tablecloths. Let this all be a memory next year.

We at the Jewish Standard wish all our readers health and safety and sanity. Despite everything, we wish you all chag sameach. 

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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