Why is this night different from all others?

With the coronavirus outbreak, this year’s Passover will certainly be one to remember

Barry Leff (photo credit: Courtesy)
Barry Leff
(photo credit: Courtesy)

This year the answer has little to do with dipping twice or leaning left. Jews all over the world will do something many of us have never done: sit down to a Seder without our extended family or friends - just our nuclear families. And in some families, there will be tension from the pressure of living on top of each other for the past few weeks without a break. People who’ve never hosted a Seder before will find themselves hosting one. This will certainly be a Passover to remember.

One thing is certain: despite the quarantines, despite the many bans on travel, despite the difficulties shopping, we as a people will celebrate Passover, and we will celebrate it on time, the 15th of Nissan. There are no postponements until Pesach Sheni a month later, or to some other more convenient date.

We Jews love rules, and for Passover we pile rules on top of our rules. Everything becomes far more stringent. Mess up and spill something not kosher into your soup, and during most of the year - as long as the stuff that’s not kosher is less than 1/60 the volume of the kosher stuff - it’s considered nullified and it’s OK to eat. During Passover if a breadcrumb you missed fell into your big kettle of soup, you can’t eat it. Chametz (leavening or any leavened product) is forbidden in any amount.

And yet, in extraordinary times, our people have always found ways to adapt to changing circumstances so that we can continue to celebrate. The default halacha (Jewish law) is that the wine we drink at Passover should be red. The red is supposed to remind us of the blood our ancestors smeared on their doorposts so that God would pass over their homes. 

During the Middle Ages, blood libels spread throughout Europe. Jews were accused of killing Christian children to use their blood at Seders, so the rabbis said to use white wine instead. They would drink the white wine and be reminded that while they weren’t slaves in Egypt, their situation was nonetheless precarious.

EVEN IN the darkest days of the Holocaust, Jews celebrated Passover. Rena Quint wrote in her memoir how, in 1940 in a ghetto in Poland, some Jews made wine from raisins. The bakers in the town kashered the ovens and baked matzah, even though they were living under Nazi occupation. In 1943, a group of Jews hiding in a secret bunker in the Warsaw Ghetto celebrated a Seder while the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt was beginning. 

As Pinchas Gutter described it: “That day, we all went down to the bunker, about 150 people in all…. My father must have brought wine, somebody else had matzos, and that evening in the bunker, they made a Seder. Everyone was crying and praying. These were religious Jews who knew by heart the Haggadah, the Jewish text that sets forth the order of the Passover Seder, and it still amazes me that, at such a dire time, they never forgot their culture and their morals. They also always made sure to shelter and look after their children.”

Most years when we tell the Passover story, we’re living lives that are like the lives of our ancestors at the end of the Haggadah: living freely, worshiping God, remembering the difficult times of the past.

This year, it’s as if we’re in the middle of the Passover story as we’re telling it. We’re like our ancestors who were holed up in their homes while Moses and Aaron were negotiating with Pharaoh, and plagues were in the air. Even though they were spared, our ancestors were terrified by the plagues all around them and felt helpless. Death was in the air as they hunkered down in their houses while Egyptian first-borns were dying around them – they could hear the anguished cries of their neighbors who lost loved ones.

That’s where we are this year. We’re hunkered down in our homes as a plague rages around us. For many of us, going to the grocery store feels like a scary proposition. Just as our ancestors had no idea when the plagues around them would end, we don’t know when the plague around us will end, we don’t know the “end game.”

And yet, the Seder brings a message of hope. We drink four cups of wine at the Seder because there are four mentions of redemption when God promised to bring the Hebrews out of Egypt in Exodus chapter 6: "I shall take you out… I shall rescue you... I shall redeem you... I shall bring you." The four cups symbolize four redemptions: from Egypt, from Babylonia, from Greece, and the future redemption.

The future redemption isn’t only the long-awaited coming of the Messiah. The future redemption is any redemption that’s yet in the future of the people having the Seder. During the Middle Ages, when the Jews in Europe were spared from pogroms, that was a redemption. When World War II ended, and Jews were liberated from the camps, that was another redemption. 

When we are freed from the restrictions we are living with, it will be a redemption. When those who’ve lost their jobs because of the coronavirus get back to work, it will be a redemption. When those who’ve fallen sick from the coronavirus get their health back, it will be a redemption.

One of Passover’s names is chag ha’aviv, the spring holiday. We’re reminded that just as nature is coming alive again, the world is turning green and the dark season has passed, our lives, too, will experience renewal. The difficult time will pass. 

L’shana haba’ah b'Yerushalayim (habnuyah), next year in Jerusalem (rebuilt)! Next year together with our family and friends. Next year in good health.