For countless Jews, the Passover Seder this year will be a distressingly unfamiliar experience. There will be no relatives flying in from out of town, no host families with whom to share the meal and its rituals, no group Seders at the campus Hillel or local Chabad House, no catered Seder in a resort hotel. The irreplaceable felicity of connection — the joining with extended family, friends, or even strangers that has always been so integral to the Passover meal — will be absent.
“Why is this night different from all other nights?” asks the youngest participant as the Seder gets underway. That question will resonate with an unfamiliar apprehension when Passover begins on Wednesday, as the coronavirus pandemic keeps Jews apart on the night when they are most accustomed to togetherness. Social distancing during Passover? A Seder in self-quarantine? It seems unimaginable.
Passover commemorates God’s liberation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt, and every spring for 33 centuries Jews have convened the Seder to relive that momentous event. They eat unleavened matzah, the “bread of affliction” that sustained the Hebrews in Egypt. They taste bitter herbs to recall the embittered lives of their ancestors in bondage. They read and discuss the Haggadah (literally, the “telling”) — the ancient text that recounts the details of the Exodus, elucidates the customs of the Seder, and amalgamates rabbinic teachings and centuries-old songs.
Quoting the Talmud, the Haggadah declares that in each generation, Jews must strive to feel as if they themselves had personally had left Egypt. That will be easier to do this year. For the very first Passover also took place under quarantine, during a rapidly spreading plague, with each family alone under its own roof, anxious about the future.
The story is told in Exodus 12. The Jews were commanded to prepare lamb for their final meal in Egypt — one lamb per household, to be eaten “roasted over the fire, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs.” God was going to ravage Egypt with a deadly plague, but the Jews were to daub blood from the lamb on their doorposts for protection. “When I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt,” God promised. But it was critically important that they stay in lockdown: “None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning.”
Their anxiety must have been off the charts. People were dying. Panic was everywhere. The beleaguered Israelites, about to exchange a life of enslavement for a grueling slog through an inhospitable desert, knew their lives would never again be the same. On this night of all nights, they must have desperately yearned to be with their grandchildren, their neighbors, their oldest friends.
Yet they were ordered to keep to themselves. And ordered, moreover, to relive the experience every year thereafter — to never forget that moment when everything seemed so bleak, to teach their children that out of the fear and plague and aloneness of that night had come something wonderful: redemption and freedom.
Is this year’s Seder night really so different from Seder nights past? Jews have commemorated Passover under the direst circumstances. There have been pandemics more horrible and lethal than this one. There have been wars and expulsions, blood libels and pogroms.
Jews have made Seders in good times and in bad, resolutely embracing hope and optimism, refusing to resign themselves to the triumph of evil. A passage early in the Haggadah tells of five leading rabbis in 2nd century Judea gathering on Passover to recount the exodus. It was an era of brutal Roman repression, and the rabbis were forced to hold their Seder in secret. Nonetheless, they enthusiastically discussed the redemption from Egypt all night long, not realizing morning had come until their students came to the hiding place to tell them.
"The darkness of night in retrospect becomes revealed as simply a prelude to the beauty of day,” remarks the contemporary scholar Benjamin Blech in “Redemption, Then and Now,” a commentary on the Haggadah. The story is an admonition “never to give up hope for a better tomorrow — because that is as certain as the fact that day follows night.”
Day follows night, freedom succeeds slavery, goodness triumphs over cruelty: This is a leitmotif that runs through the Haggadah.
The very first passage of “the telling,” so old it is rendered in Aramaic, proclaims: “Now we are slaves; next year we shall be free.” The very last passage of the last song at the end of the Seder — a symbol-laden children’s lyric about a young goat and a hierarchy of creatures that attack each other — culminates with the assurance that the Angel of Death will be defeated by God. Another, the famous “Dayenu,” is a reminder of the ways in which things get better — an exhortation to be thankful even when all isn’t yet quite right. At still another point, the Haggadah incorporates Psalm 118, an outpouring of joyful confidence that all will turn out well. "I shall not die, but live,” the Psalmist writes — a welcome message in a pandemic.
This Seder night is not so different from all other Seder nights. This coronavirus may be new, but fear and danger and unease are part of the human condition. Passover is an annual reminder that we are not alone, not even when we shelter in place. Even apart, we can care for each other, and thereby deserve God’s care for us.
Despair is never the right answer. This pandemic, too, shall pass.