This Passover I am planning to do the seder all by myself in my studio apartment. For the last few years I’ve been fortunate enough to be hosted by families in the community for all of the holiday meals. That’s two seders, two lunch meals on the first days, Shabbos meals during the middle of the holiday, and then finally two dinners and two lunches for the last days. Clearly, if I didn’t have gratitude before I certainly do now.
But now as I am preparing for the eventuality of doing the seder myself (combing through the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, attending Zoom crash course classes), reality of the Coronavirus has made me realize there is a unique opportunity available this year unlike any other year.
There are a plethora of mitzvahs to complete over Pesach, let alone to accomplish during the seder. Ridding your home of chometz, eating matzah, drinking 4 cups of wine, maror, filling Elijah’s cup, etc. But the most important mitzvah of Pesach is actually telling the story of the exodus, a process known as Maggid.
Though many of us speed through the story to get to dinner, others take the time to not just tell the story but relive it. One year, my friend Saul actually had his kids carry sacks of potatoes up and down stairs while he beat them with cardboard tubes. And though you probably don’t quite want to go that far, there’s something to be said for the spirit of Saul’s theatrics.
The whole seder is actually quite theatrical, as we’re not just supposed to tell the story, but experience it. The bitterness of the maror. The salt water from dipping the vegetable. Reclining while we eat matzah and drink the wine. These are all actions not meant as delightful customs but instead are purposefully designed to give us a physical experience to pair with the story. Doing so turns bland history into living memory. Because as Jews, we’re not supposed to view the story as something that happened to our ancestors 3,000 plus years ago, but something that happened to each and everyone of us as a reality.
Why are we asked to indulge in such a delusion? The effect of memory is that it exists in our minds and influences how we interact with the world. Pleasant memories can be recalled to bring us out of dark places. Traumatic ones can give us physical responses whether we want them to or not. The point is they live in us. One of the problems with having a smart phone that’s connected to all information ever — opposed to learning it ourselves, is that even though we can look something up when we need it, that same information living in our brains helps us make decisions without us even realizing it. (I never thought I’d need to know about the Spanish Armada, but when I’m writing a climactic scene, having that lesson from 8th grade history is certainly useful.)
Why is this Passover different from all other Passovers?
That brings us to our current situation. Though so many parts of the seder give us that physical memory of the elements of the story, when in modern history have we conducted the service with a literal plague outside our door under the real threat of grave consequence? According to the Torah the first 9 plagues didn’t harm the Jews in any way (the plague of darkness might be an exception.) However when it came to the 10th plague, the slaying of the first born, if the Jews didn’t hold a seder, eat the Paschal Lamb, and do the blood on the door post thing, they were as susceptible to the plague as much as the Egyptians were.
Where observant Jews are painstakingly careful about cleaning their house for any and all chometz, suddenly the whole world is washing hands, wiping down all new items, and keeping distances with OCD like intensity. The plagues of Egypt brought the world’s most prosperous economy to a standstill, now every economy in the world has come to a screeching halt. The Jews yearned for freedom from their slavery while today literally everyone is desperate to escape house arrest. I’m not saying it’s good Covid-19 came upon us. But there is certainly an opportunity to connect with that memory of our ancestors in a way unlike any other time in history.
If you are able to safely spend a seder with your family, know how lucky you are. Though your seder may not be much different than most years, keep in mind the circumstances of the world and hopefully it will help the Maggid portion feel all that much more real. For those of us that would simply attend a seder because we’ve been the benefits of kindness, now we’re getting to intimately learn the Haggadah in order to perform it ourselves. Though we aren’t telling the story over to any young children (the true purpose of the seder) perhaps we can take a little extra time to make sure we live the story more than just tell it.
I personally believe the most important aspect of seeing ourselves go through the story is not just to be sensitive to slavery or fearful of plagues, but to experience God’s redemption. Jewish thought fervently believes that human history has a destination, a purpose, a culmination leading to ultimate good. Today we are all suffering. Whether it is cabin fever, the loss of a job, the anxiety of uncertainty, or the loss of a loved one, when a person knows their suffering is for a purpose, it makes that difficulty far more bearable. So take a few moments during one night and try to leave that all behind. And in doing so, invest in reliving the miraculous redemption from crushing slavery to witnessing justice, savoring victory, and taking the first breath of freedom, it might just amount to the transformative experience that the seder is supposed to be all about.