Passover, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the liberation of Jews who were enslaved in Egypt, begins on the evening of April 8. In normal years, Passover is a communal celebration, bringing families together at seder meals to retell the story of plagues sent by God to punish the Egyptians for their recalcitrance and to celebrate the Exodus, the journey Jews took from bondage in Egypt to freedom Israel. This is no normal year: The covid-19 pandemic has made it impossible for families and communities to gather in person. While Jews are finding new ways to hold seders while apart, logistics are only part of a holiday. We asked five religious and community leaders to offer suggestions for how to think about Passover this year, and how to find new meaning in the holiday when everything else has been called into question. — Alyssa Rosenberg
Make the poor a part of your seder planning
By Rabbi Elie Kaunfer
Every year at this time, Jews all over the world celebrate Passover. We tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, and recite centuries-old poems and liturgy. Traditionally, the main part of the seder opens with the following invitation: “All who are hungry, come and eat!”
But this year we need to reinterpret this ritual. Many people are unable to travel to be with loved ones on Passover. Certainly, no one is allowed to open their doors to strangers and offer food. How can we offer this invitation with a straight face?
Skipping it, however, is not our only option. In fact, this is not the first time in Jewish history that this line could not be intended literally.
One letter from 9th-century Babylonia offered a solution: Rabbi Mattityahu Gaon, said that it is our responsibility to feed the poor in advance of the seder, so they wouldn’t have to go out and beg on Passover night. Take care of the hungry days earlier, he said, and then recite this line knowing that those who are hungry are, indeed, being fed.
This ancient letter speaks to us most poignantly this year. As Passover starts on Wednesday night, so many more in our world are hungry. Of all years, we have to think about what we can do now — in advance of the holiday — to make sure all who are hungry will be eating on Passover night.
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer is president of the Hadar Institute.
Embrace new parts of the Haggadah
By Rabbanit Leah Sarna
The Haggadah, the text that guides Jewish families through the retelling of the Exodus story at the seder night, is a long and complex composition. So long that many have argued for paring it back: too much to get through before dinner. But to me, its length provides promise.
Passover during a pandemic means families torn apart, grief, fear, loneliness and more. My advice? Let the texts take the lead, and not just because, with many fewer people and opinions around the table, there will be plenty of time to fill.
Instead, it’s worth revisiting the Haggadah as a whole because in a strange year, some of the usual favorites might not resonate. They might be painful reminders of joyful seders past, or call for you to do activities that aren’t possible at your miniature stay-at-home-seder. But if you can’t find meaning or comfort in your usual favorites, trust that you will find solace somewhere in the texts you haven’t focused on in previous years.
As I’ve been preparing for my own micro-seders this year, there’s a certain line in the Haggadah that I keep coming back to. After the seder meal, we recite Psalm 118. Verse 5 reads: “From the strait I have called, Lord.” In the context of the Haggadah, “the strait” is a pun in Hebrew: “meytzar” (strait) echoes the word “mitzrayim” (Egypt). In my family, this line is always sung to a boisterous, table-banging melody that fits well into the triumphant tone of Psalm 118 as a whole.
However, this line was recently set to a powerful — and more downbeat — new tune by musician Deborah Sacks Mintz. Her song and these words, which typically have passed me by in the jumble of Psalm 118, feel appropriate to our moment. Stuck at home in the middle of a pandemic, we, like the Psalmist, call out from our own “strait” and pray for salvation. These ancient psalms have provided language for the Jewish people to pray throughout the many difficulties of our history. That very same language is serving me well today. I’ve never dwelled on this line at the seder night before, but I certainly will this year.
The length and complexity of the Passover texts are a promise of ever-unfolding meaning. Open yourself to them, and you will find that they open themselves to you.
Rabbanit Leah Sarna is director of religious engagement at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation.
Invite non-Jews to your virtual seders
By Nadine Epstein
The covid-19 pandemic is the perfect opportunity for Jews who haven’t done so before to reach out to non-Jewish friends and acquaintances and invite them to this year’s virtual seder. Not only are these invitations a way to make a meaningful personal connection during this tough time, they provide non-Jews an opportunity to participate in a Jewish ritual and learn a story of freedom, a story that resonates for everyone. These interfaith seders can help us stay safe during the pandemic by making it less lonely to stay at home. And they can provide booster shot against another kind of dangerous virus — old and new strains of anti-Semitism.
This suggestion might sound simple, but there are centuries-old religious strictures against including non-Jews in Passover celebrations. Even though most modern American rabbis wouldn’t censure their congregants for such inclusivity, it is prohibited in some traditional interpretations of Jewish law under which Jews may only cook for those who observe the holiday’s laws. Other rulings exclude outsiders from sharing in the “sacrificial lamb” and matzoh.
And even among Jewish families who don’t follow these prohibitions, many rarely consider including opening their homes non–Jewish friends for an event that celebrates Jews’ unique bond with God. I know this reluctance well: For many years, I held seders where my young son and I were often the only Jews present. The rest of the seats were filled with people from varied faiths and backgrounds, a mix that made these celebrations more special to me, though many of my relatives, even open-minded ones, tut-tutted, telling me “it’s just not done.”
But this Passover is different from all other Passovers. When seders are performed in virtual spaces, there’s no need to whip up vast batches of matzoh ball soup or worry about how many seats fit around your dining room table — though it’s a good idea to share some recipes and a Haggadah in advance with non-Jewish friends so they can be participants and not just observers. Some conservative Orthodox rabbis have even sanctioned the use of electronic devices during the 2020 seder. That makes this the ideal time to push back against customs and habits that have kept many Jews from reaching out.
So go forth and invite. It’s a small action that could make a big difference, now and for future generations.
Nadine Epstein is the editor in chief of Moment magazine and momentmag.com.
Think not about what will happen, but about what you will do
By Zalmy Dubinsky and Robert Botkin
After the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the Chief Rabbi of North Tel Aviv traveled to New York to visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe to seek his advice and blessing. The Rebbe asked what the mood was like in the streets of Israel? The Chief Rabbi told him, “The people are asking ‘what will be?’” Refusing to hear such words, the Rebbe responded “Jews do not ask ‘what will be?’ Jews ask ‘what are we going to do?’” This lesson on the rejection of individual passivity is meaningful during the covid-19 pandemic.
Covid-19 — like the biblical Destroyer who killed the Egyptians’ first-born in retaliation for Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to free the enslaved Jews — requires you to stay in your home to make sure the plague will pass over your family and community. And although staying home may feel like inaction, we can use this time well. The Rebbe explains that Passover “demands frequent and constant reflection so as to experience once again, in a personal way, the coming out from slavery into freedom.”
While we are not enslaved like the Jews in Egypt, we may well be enslaved to our phones, our egos, or the thoughts of others. To quote the Rebbe: “What are you going to do?” about the parts of your life that could be improved. How can you free yourself from the enslavements that, prior to covid-19, you didn’t realize or realized and intended to change? If you suffer from an illness, like heart disease, which causes covid-19 to be a more serious and fatal virus, will you reflect and make changes to your lifestyle by cutting out red meat or fatty foods? Will you refocus your priorities away from video games and Instagram videos to appreciate the people around you? Is this the time you buckle down at work to get that promotion you deserve? You are the only one who can free yourself.
Rabbi Zalmy Dubinsky runs a Chabad Young Professionals group in Raleigh, N.C. Robert Botkin is an attorney for Credit Suisse and also lives in Raleigh.