Perhaps unsurprisingly, Passover snuck up on me this year. After a March that came in like a lion and went out with a quarantine, and seemingly went on forever, I lost track of time. (After all, didn’t you hear? We are down to only three days a week: yesterday, today, and tomorrow.) But here it is, and here we are.
One of the most cherished traditions at the Passover Seder is the recitation of The Four Questions, when the youngest child present asks a series of questions to the group about Passover and its rituals- eating matzah, eating bitter herbs, dipping vegetables, and eating while reclining. The beginning line of The Four Questions, which is perhaps the most famous, is traditionally translated as “How is this night different from all other nights?”, from the Hebrew “Mah nishtanah halaylah hazeh mikol halaylot?”
But here’s a little known fact- that first word of The Four Questions- “mah”, is less of a question than a rhetorical exclamation. A better translation of that opening line is “How different this night is from all other nights!” And that’s not really a question at all, it’s a reminder to the participants that the Passover Seder is far different from any other meal we have during the year.
This year, though, it’s worth adding an element of reflection to the opening line of The Four Questions. This time around, Passover is not just unique among the other nights of the year, but in truth, there has never been a Passover like the one we are about to celebrate, where we will attempt to celebrate a holiday so predicated on gathering together by gathering separately. Most years people boast about their Seders and how many people they will be with, but this year I’m ready for photos on Facebook of computer screens filled with face tiles of all of people’s remote Zoom or Skype Seder participants. This Passover will be, for lack of a better expression, differently different. We literally have never tried this before.
As people of all faiths are apt to do, we are always trying to connect the rituals we observe and texts that we read during and at our religious rituals to our modern lives. When it comes to the story of Passover, it is easy to draw the through-lines from the suffering of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and the miracle of the Exodus to our lives today. We can all relate and find modern equivalents to, many of the key plot pieces- a cruel and tyrannical ruler, an enslaved and persecuted people, an inspiring spiritual leader, human stubbornness, and more. This year it’s also not hard to relate to things like the plagues of cattle disease, boils, and the death of the firstborn, as we are quite literally living through a pandemic of historical proportions. It’s tempting, and has been out there in the marketplace of Passover ideas for a while now, to say that the Coronavirus is the 11th plague, but I’m not here to play that card. Covid-19 is just another on a long list of examples of the challenges faced by the Jewish people, and all people, in every generation.
On the other hand, though, Passover allows us all to see the other side of the story as well, that in face of the challenges and hardships faced by us today and our ancestors before us, in every generation there is calamity, but also redemption, survival, community, and the spirit and belief that better times lie not too far ahead of us. This Passover (and Easter), I’m certain that’s something we will all be praying for.