Virtual Sedering

My first virtual seder this Pesach was with my small congregation, Temple B’Nai Israel, in Albany, Georgia. I’ve been their rabbi now going on three years, living in Greensboro, North Carolina and commuting bi-weekly by plane to this small southern Georgia town, some ninety miles north of Tallahassee, Florida.

For a month now, we’d been accustomed to meeting through the services of Zoom, praying together, studying together, schmoozing a bit. Congregants whom I’d been accustomed to seeing in person, leading them in prayer, teaching Torah, shaking their hands, kissing the women on the cheek, and enjoying a piece of cake with them while catching up on the latest of what’s going on, I now see as small boxes on the screen of my MacBook Air.

So when our Pesach seder rolled around, we were already accustomed to this high-tech and somewhat bizarre (you have to admit) substitute for being together. Save the High Holy Days, the Pesach seder is the largest single gathering for this group of mostly Southern-born Jews, and had over the generations become their primary celebration of the Feast of Liberation. We met by Zoom, some thirty of us, including a few guests from other places, and I guided them through the rituals using the PDF of a Haggadah provided by the Union for Reform Judaism. Two others had purchased matza, of which one had also prepared charoset. Most had wine, however, a fine commentary on our coronavirus moment, I thought.

We worked through the rituals up to opening the door and inviting in the prophet Elijah, whom we’d hoped would finally, finally usher in to our presence the Messiah who’d remove us from this hash we’ve found ourselves in the midst of. But no such luck. As always we were met by open doors in our homes, to which we raised our voices with the song we sing (“bimhara v’yameinu, soon in our day, may he come to us…”).

My wife Betsy and I had prepared a true festive meal which we enjoyed after the seder: matza ball soup, homemade gefilte fish (all right it was a fish loaf spiced to taste pretty close to the real thing), brisket and roasted vegetables. We were firmly committed not to allow the moment to interfere with a genuine feast.

The second virtual seder began 4 pm Eastern time the next day so that our Israeli daughter could join (11 pm her time). This was our family seder with participants from Greensboro (my wife and I), from Tel Aviv (our daughter, Talia), our daughter, her husband, and their two-year old daughter (Elly, Arkady and Ava), her in-laws from Boca (Lilia and Shunya), and their daughter (Polina) in LA.

This one was the heart of funky. The two-year old, at the height the powers her age bestows upon her, ruled the screen. Assisted by her parents, she sang a song about the contents of the seder plate and another about the frogs Pharaoh encountered during the Ten Plagues. More, she scampered around, talking, eating, and generally filling the screen to an audience who loved every motion. How could exploration of the thematic meaning of the rituals (which we managed to perform nonetheless) possibly compare to everyone’s favorite two-year old filling the screen and entertaining her family with every one of her motions, smiling in loving acceptance of her childish antics?

My third virtual seder happened at 6 pm that same night with our Boston hevra and some guests, a group of people we have not lived among since the mid-1990’s, but with whom we’ve kept in close touch for these two and a half decades. Once again the Zoom screen filled with people, almost all, save us, from the Boston area. Our host had divided the seder into its many component parts and had distributed them, so that no one had more than one part of the seder to present.

This was a serious-minded seder, with all of the presenters offering their ritual accompanied by a variety of commentary, all of it intelligent, spiritually enlightening, and compelling. Some of the participants were present with their entire immediate family, others were couples, a few were by themselves. But this was a group many of whom know each other well; the chatter between the parts of the seder were matters of catching up. This recounting of the Israelites struggle from slavery to freedom was packed with intelligence and beauty, and felt like the seders of my younger days, when children were not yet born, and Pesach constituted a loving effort to struggle with freedom and redemption.

After this seder was complete, many elected to stay on Zoom while we ate our meals. Then for sure we chatted and caught up and reacquainted ourselves with each other while we focused on the impact COVID-19 is having on us individually. One mother and daughter had had to make their way back to Brookline from Florence, Italy where the daughter had been studying art restoration. Another friend’s daughter-in-law had been quarantined in London with the bug, and had just passed the crucial time period where she seems to be on the way toward recovery. Another spoke about the travails of his business in Brookline, a sophisticated puzzle shop, which had done great business (who doesn’t want a complex puzzle during lockdown?), though things on that end are slowing down.

Congregants, family, old, dear friends, all brought into virtual presence with one another due to the isolation forced upon us because of the vast and horrible condition in which we find ourselves. Not one of us would prefer this reality over the other one, the one where we gather in the same room and sit around a table in worship, talk, song, and food, and go home when it’s over. Yet something noble emerged from this moment, the refusal to lie down and just take it, to just do nothing but weep at the misery of our condition. Instead, we met Pharaoh head on, and once again vanquished him with plagues, talk, and song. And though the prophet Elijah did not walk through the door at any of these three sedarim (he never does; let’s be clear), we celebrated our own minor messianic moments and lived the festival as it is meant to be lived.

At 8:30 pm Israel time on the first night of Pesach, thousands of Israelis climbed to the roofs of their homes or stood on their balconies, invited the night before by an adorable young cartoon girl on Channel 12 , and sang the Four Questions. Our Israeli daughter Talia sent us a video of this event, a cacophony of voices all singing Why is This Night Different from All Other Nights? And at the end of the video, someone in near proximity shouted “Hag sameach, Tel Aviv!” And for that moment the singers on the roof joined with millions of other Jewish voices over many time zones in celebration of our great festival of redemption.

About the Author
Phil M. Cohen is a rabbi, author, novelist with interests in bioethics, Israel, fiction, Bible, and Jewish thought. His novel Nick Bones Underground won a Finalist award in the category of Debut Novel from the Jewish Book Council..
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