Passover Seders include one moment that is especially poignant for grandparents.
Early in this ritual meal they look on as one or more of their grandchildren sing or recite the “Ma Nishtana,” the “Four Questions” that frame the lessons Israelites learned from their bondage in Egypt and Exodus to freedom.
The first line echoes from generation to generation: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
This year, Jews everywhere are wrestling with the fact that — in a world wracked by the coronavirus — this Passover was radically different from other Passovers.
“There’s no way to replace having Passover with your parents, your grandparents, your friends and loved ones,” said Rabbi Yaacov Behrman, founder of the Jewish Future Alliance and director of Operation Survival, a drug abuse prevention program in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.
“A grandmother looks forward to seeing her grandchildren at the Seder. Fathers and mothers look forward to seeing their families around that table. … There’s no way to ignore the pain of what is happening this year.”
Prayers and symbols describing suffering and liberation are at the heart of Haggadah (Hebrew for “telling”) texts that guide the Seder meal and interpret the eight-day Passover season, which began this year at sundown on Wednesday, April 8.
Why is matzo the only bread at Passover? Because the Israelites didn’t have time to bake leavened bread as they fled Egypt. Why dip bitter herbs into chopped apples, dates, nuts and wine? Because this paste resembles the clay Hebrew slaves used to make bricks. Why dip parsley into salt water? This represents new life, mixed with tears.
One ritual will have special meaning this year, as the leader of the Seder prays: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us concerning the washing of the hands.”
Some secular and religious Jews are creating digital windows from one table to another, following how-to guides for “online Seders” using Zoom and similar video programs. Some Conservative and even Orthodox leaders have backed this strategy, especially if — as one group of rabbis said — the technology is “accessed in a way that does not involve direct interaction,” such as voice-command software to control computers or smartphones.
But the Chief Rabbinate of Israel ruled that the use of these devices is forbidden on religious Jewish holidays. The rabbis added: “The loneliness is painful, and we must respond to it, perhaps even with a video conference on the holiday before it begins, but not by desecrating the holiday, which is only permitted in cases of ‘pikuach nefesh’ (to save a life).”
“Shelter in place” orders have also made it impossible for Jews to follow the tradition of inviting less-fortunate guests to Seders, including those living alone, said Behrman, who is part of the Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
“We cannot, of course, open our doors right now and give away food. But this made it important to take food to others before our Seders and we can keep doing that afterwards. … We have taken boxes of essential Seder foods to people who are alone or may not have been able to get out to buy these things on their own.”
The bottom line: coronavirus lockdowns forced many Jews, especially the elderly, to do something they would otherwise find unthinkable — spend Passover alone.
In one online Chabad forum, an anonymous Australia writer noted: “Yes, this year’s Pesach will be different. … Knowing that many grieving families will spend Pesach without their loved ones. Knowing that these times are uncertain and unpredictable. But still doing what needs to be done and making a Pesach as kosher and enjoyable as can be under the circumstances is hard. Keeping in mind that matzo is known as the bread of faith and the bread of healing.”
Seder traditions have much to offer believers in troubled times, stressed Behrman.
“These prayers are what unite us, right now and through many generations. We say these prayers and these prayers unite us. We eat the same matzo and that unites us. We need to be united in every way that we can, right now. … The times we are living in will bring these prayers alive while we reflect on what is happening all around us.”
Terry Mattingly (tmatt.net) leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.