Why is this Passover different from all others?

For the past few weeks as the Passover holiday inched toward us, preparations for the commemoration and celebration of the holiday have given rise to growing angst.

Passover plate from France (photo credit: YAD VASHEM PHOTO ARCHIVES)
Passover plate from France
As the world is besieged by a spreading virus, our thoughts focus on our own health, the health of our loved ones, and the health of an ailing economy, and we experience fear, loneliness and isolation. For some, the nightmare began just as the holiday of Purim was celebrated, which unwittingly helped to spread the virus.
For the past few weeks as the Passover holiday inched toward us, preparations for the commemoration and celebration of the holiday have given rise to growing angst. What in other years seemed simple – packing our bags to spend the holiday in the home of family or friends or in a hotel, or cleaning, shopping for and preparing holiday treats – has suddenly become immensely complicated.
For many residents of Jerusalem, shopping in the crowded, bustling Mahaneh Yehuda market is a cherished pre-holiday tradition, an essential element of the preparations. This year, hotels are closed, travel plans have all been cancelled and the markets are desolate, patrolled by police to keep shoppers away and protect the public’s health.
For most of us, Passover is family time. In other years, the familiar teaching of the Haggadah regarding the four sons served as a wonderful rhetorical tool to describe the disparate views often present in large families, which nonetheless meld together for celebration of the holiday, a celebration punctuated by the familiar holiday smells, tastes and tunes. But this year is different. This year, even the four sons analogy has a different texture.
The patriarchs and matriarchs of our families, who always have a seat of honor at the head of the table, are fearful of contamination; the elderly and immune-compromised cannot risk exposure. How, then, will this Passover be celebrated?
Some of us will share the Passover Seder with unusually small family groups who will need to sing, tell the story, share insights and compensate for the small numbers with even greater enthusiasm. Some Seders will be a dialogue between two people, as it will for my own parents. After immigrating to Israel more than 20 years ago, my mother decided she would no longer be hosting a Seder. With all of the children and grandchildren here in Israel, my parents merely needed to keep track of whose turn it was to host “Bubbie and Zaydie.” This year, their Seder will be a table for two.
There will also be many people, old and young, who will be completely on their own for the first time for the Passover Seder. This is not an easy task, but for many, there seems to be no choice. How should one conduct a Passover Seder such as this?
Running a proper Seder, even when it’s a monologue, requires preparation. A Seder is a multi-sensory experience, a combination of unique and special foods, wine, and content – the Haggadah. Choosing the right Haggadah can be a crucial decision.
There are many elements to the Haggadah itself, and different people connect to different facets. Some of us are engaged by the art that traditionally accompanies the text; others connect more readily with the commentaries that accompany the text; while some find the text itself engaging.
THERE IS no perfect Haggadah, however, especially if you are in a smaller group, it’s best to have one or two different Haggadahs on hand that speak to you personally. Although many people try to purchase a new Haggadah each year, this may prove difficult under the present circumstances. There is a wealth of Passover-related resources available online for those who plan ahead.
If your Seder will include younger participants, take the time to plan how you will engage them with questions, prompts, tasks and even props. At the Seder, each and every participant should be both a teacher and a student.
For those who will be alone for Seder, the challenge may seem particularly difficult, but the Haggadah itself seems to address this situation. Regarding the four questions which are usually asked by the youngest participant, the Talmud notes that even the responsive sections of the Haggadah may be adapted to a monologue format.
“The Sages taught: If his son is wise, his son asks him. And if he [the son] is not wise, his wife asks him. And if not, he asks himself (Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 116a).
Maimonides (Sefer HaMitzvot, positive commandment 157) cites a rabbinic interpretation of this Talmudic instruction: The words “and if not” indicate that if a person is alone, and has no child, spouse or friend to ask or conduct a dialogue, nonetheless he or she should conduct the Passover Seder by asking the questions of the Haggadah and spending the evening delivering the answers and singing songs of praise and thanksgiving to God.
This may not seem simple, but we all need to focus on the reality that even if we spend the Passover Seder by ourselves, we are not alone. Millions of Jews will be performing the same service at the very same moment, and we are all connected to the millions of Jews who did the same throughout history. We are not alone; we are connected with our people, with our extended family – past, present and future – even as we sit by ourselves.
And when we consider the past, we should remember how our people celebrated the Passover Seder in all types of situations. At times, the taste of the matzah and the bitter herbs helped them recall the suffering of the past; other times, they drank the wine to forget the present.
Passover has always been a time of hope, and Passover has evolved. The practice in Egypt was not the same as the commemoration of liberation when the Israelites entered the Land of Israel. The practice during the exile after the destruction of the first holy Temple must have been particularly tragic; I have no doubt that those Jews wondered how they could celebrate freedom when they had returned to exile.
This cycle was repeated during the Second Temple period, and again during the long years of the subsequent exile. Yet Passover has always been about more than merely recounting the past; it has always been about anticipating our glorious future. The end of the Haggadah celebrates that eschatological future, a time of full physical, spiritual, personal and national redemption. Throughout history, Jews have believed in the past while simultaneously believing in the future.
We are blessed in so many ways, yet the events of the past month have shaken us. We should realize that Passover has arrived at the perfect time, to help us shake off any sense of depression or hopelessness that our current situation might have allowed to creep up on us. Passover is a celebration of freedom.
In a very real way, many of us have lost some of our most basic freedoms over the past few weeks. But this puts us in a relatively unique position to better understand the messages of Passover: The slave in Egypt had no freedom of movement, no control over time or place. We have long taken our freedom for granted.
We must draw strength from this holiday and distill its core message.
Near the end of the Haggadah we sing, “Next year in Jerusalem.” For many in recent years that ancient prayer became an expression of a choice. This year, for the first time in recent memory, this choice is not available. The airports are closed, and Israel is (temporarily) out of reach. Perhaps everyone should invest some special consideration and conviction in their declaration of “Next Year in Jerusalem” at this year’s Seder, and pray that when the day arrives, we will use our newly re-acquired freedom with wisdom, sanctity and joy.
The writer is director of the overseas student program at Bar-Ilan University, where he also is a senior lecturer in Jewish studies. He is the rabbi of the Mishkan Etrog community in Givat Ze’ev, and the author of more than 10 books on Jewish thought.