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Here’s how to not let the pandemic sour your Passover

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Passover is the great Jewish holiday, period. It is also the great Jewish holiday of the home.

As we learn in Exodus 12:10, it is the only holiday where eating leftovers is forbidden. That might seem like a strange custom, but it’s all about creating community. “If a family,” the Torah tells us, “is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join the nearest household in procuring one.”

Modern scientific analysis and ancient historical writings tell us it takes around 15 people to consume a lamb. Thus, the Last Meal in Egypt — after which the Seder is modeled — essentially required households to join together. The great Jewish holiday, our authentic and Biblical New Year, was thus created through the act of households sharing with each other in the tradition of hospitality that our father Abraham modeled for us back in Genesis.

Consequently, Jews have always enjoyed large Seders with family, friends and strangers. Then came 2020. There was never any question that we should have abandoned the millennia-old tradition of celebrating Seder in large groups. We are instructed in Deuteronomy 8:1 to “live by” the commandments — not, in other words, to die by them. Saving a life always comes first.

Last year, I certainly thought that we would be enjoying large Seders again by 2021. I even thought that we would be doing so on Pesach Sheni, the holiday a month after Passover. This is the holiday ordained to be celebrated by people who could not celebrate the original Passover because they were in a state of ritual impurity or in a “faraway place,” physically or emotionally.

Three siblings in Mevasseret Zion, near Jerusalem, wave to their their grandmother in Haifa as she joins their Passover Seder via Zoom application as Israel takes stringent steps to contain the coronavirus (COVID-19) April 8, 2020
Three siblings in Mevasseret Zion, near Jerusalem, wave to their their grandmother in Haifa as she joins their Passover Seder via Zoom as on April 8, 2020.
REUTERS/Dan Williams

Of course, Pesach Sheni 2020 came and went — and here we are, still unable to have the large Seders that the Biblical Author wanted us to have. How, then, can we best celebrate the Passover Seder knowing that the Biblically ordained — and beloved way — is still impossible?

Many people will answer that they will do Seders over Zoom. The problem with this is that Seder night is about retelling and reliving the Exodus from Egypt. From the smells of the food to the hiding of the Afikomen, there are many things at Seder that can only be done physically.

And even vigorous and searching conversation, the heart and the purpose of the Seder, is hard to conduct via a device parked in a place where, inevitably, it is hard for everyone to even see each other. Still, some will conclude — and, for them, rightly — that a Zoom Seder, while nothing compared to the real thing, is better than any plausible alternatives this year.

There is, however, another way. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik says: “There is no holiness
without preparation.” The truth of his insight is exemplified in Pesach, which illuminates
preparation as so integral to the meaning and function of the Seder that it can be considered a part of the event itself.

Therefore, the approach to Passover for the second year of quasi-quarantine might be:
Accentuate the preparation, and in so doing appreciate its holiness.

I was on a radio show recently and the host said that many people find the preparation for Passover so stressful that it detracts from the enjoyment of the Seder itself. This was sad to hear! If we are preparing correctly, the meaning of the event will not be lost. To the contrary, it will be discovered.

So, how can we accentuate the Seder preparation to better appreciate its holiness? In the spirit of the Pesach Four — four questions, four sons, four glasses of wine — let’s ponder four ways.

First, take all the stress out of the physical preparation by ordering supplies online.

The function of the searching by candlelight serves to imbue the act with the seriousness it deserves.
Searching for bread by candlelight imbues the act with the seriousness it deserves.
Getty Images

Second, consider the dictate of Exodus 12:47. The Pesach meal must be enjoyed by the
“whole congregation of Israel.” Passover is expensive, and yet the Bible tells us that every Jew must be able to celebrate it. Therefore, identify a Passover relief fund (which every Jewish community has) and make a donation in fulfillment of our Biblical obligation to ensure that every Jew can celebrate.

Third, go through the Haggadah with the realization that each passage is one of the Greatest Hits of Jewish Thought — with wisdom to guide us to live better lives in the coming year.

Perhaps it is, “All who are hungry, come and eat.” Perhaps it is the son who does not know how to ask a question. Perhaps it is the plague of darkness. Then, before the Seder, have a virtual discussion with some of the people you want to learn with and from — Jews and Gentile — about what those passages might mean for each person’s life in the year to come.

Carry that learning and those insights into your own Seder, even if may be just family this year. It will still be enriched by the perspective of others, and perhaps more than ever before.

Fourth, get rid of the chametz (bread products) from your home in the way the Torah and some subsequent Rabbinic instruction dictate. We should do it at night, by candlelight — with a brush, a pan and a candle. And in the morning, burn or otherwise discard all three. The function of the searching by candlelight serves to imbue the act with the seriousness it deserves. We destroy the brush and the pan for an obvious reason — they touched the chametz.

And for the candle? Because, the great 19th-century Rabbi Sfat Emet said, its sole purpose was to look for negativity.

The Seder is our great opportunity for self-evaluation, to ask how we can better ourselves internally en route to being better people externally. The Haggadah gives us more than enough to do so even when we cannot celebrate the Seder communally.

Mark Gerson is an entrepreneur, philanthropist and co-founder and Chair of United Hatzalah of Israel, the crowd-sourced volunteer system of rapid first responders. He is author of the new book on the “Haggadah: The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life.”

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