On this Pesach, when I feel I have done the absolute minimum to get my home ready for the chag, I am reminded that at its barest bones, the Seder must consist of the mention of three things. And so in the less-than-eighteen minutes I have to sit at my computer, these are the three things I am thinking about this year:
Pesach: The Seder was designed by the sages in Yavneh who were no longer able to mark the fourteenth of Nisan as it had traditionally been observed: By eating the Korban Pesach, the Paschal lamb. The Torah teaches that the Paschal lamb had to be eaten in small groups, often just the family unit. The Talmud adds that the individual who slaughtered the lamb for his family had to do so with all his family members in mind – anyone whom he did not have in mind was not allowed to join the meal at the last minute. Today, when we are all being instructed to have our Seder at home with the people we are living with—and on our own if we are on our own—I am reminded that the original activity performed on the fourteenth of Nisan, on which the Seder is based, was also a household affair. And so while it is lonely to be so far from grandparents, parents, grown children, and grandchildren on this holiday, there is something very authentic about the Corona “microseders” that transport us back to the way in which this night was observed in Temple times.
Matzah: The Maggid begins with a description of the matzah: This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in Egypt. All who are hungry, come eat. I am grateful that no one in my family will go hungry this Pesach, but I know that everyone has tasted of affliction and privation. My daughters miss their friends. My son wishes we had enough eggs to make omelets for breakfast. My husband would like time to work without the kids underfoot. I wish I could go out for a long run. All of us have experienced encroachments on our liberties that would have been unfathomable just a few months ago. As the Israelite slaves knew all too well, and as we were privileged to forget for so long, liberty is tenuous. This will not be the feast of freedom we pray for each year, and I have no doubt that the little we have done to prepare is not enough – I will say Dayenu with a heavy heart. It has not been enough. Our Chad Gadya seems stuck in a loop at that moment when the angel of death appears on the scene, setting off a nightmarish chain reaction that we once could have averted and now feel powerless to stop, as China became Italy became the United States. As the Torah relates of the plague of the firstborn, it seems like there is no home without a death – everyone has been affected by this pandemic. When will the Holy One Blessed Be He step in and slaughter the Angel of Death? And yet even as I ask this question and sit down to retell the exodus story, I can hear God’s response, echoing His response to Moses on the brink of the Red Sea: “Why are you crying out to me? Speak out to the Children of Israel and go forward!” Our destiny is in our hands, and if we all do our part, we may find a way to flatten the bread and flatten the curve and make our way forward.
Maror: We have tasted so much bitterness in the last few weeks that the bitter herbs seem superfluous. This pandemic has embittered our lives like slavery embittered the Israelites. We cannot be close to our communities and to many of the people we love. We cannot extend a strong arm and an outstretched hand to embrace our friends and family members who are lonely or sick and would like us at their side. This Pesach many of us will shed tears of longing and loneliness, and in places of the world where there is a total lockdown, the Seder night will be a true Leyl Shimurim, a night of vigil, with everyone scared to leave their homes because of the danger in the streets. Each day when we rise we are greeted by our screens which flash with the news of the latest death tolls. When will the bitter be made sweet again?
In every generation a person must see himself as if he has gone out of Egypt. We are still in the narrow straits, still constricted, with so many people in our world still gasping for breath. May the angel of death pass over us and those we love, and may this Passover be the harbinger of our redemption.
Inspired by the reflections of Daniel Feldman, Leon Wiener Dow, Joel Levy, Mishael Zion, and others.