A Quarantine Seder: 7 Insights to Uplift Your Seder.
Bring joy to this year’s unique Seder experience.
This Seder night will be very different from years past. Unfortunately, some of us will be alone. Others will gather together with only a few family members. The thoughts and conversation we will share around the table will also take on a different flavor and emphasis.
The following 7 insights are geared to uplift and bring joy to this year’s Seder experience.
1. The Correct Greeting
The beloved Chassidic master, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1810) argued that we have adopted the wrong greeting for Passover. He suggested that we switch the greeting with the one we say on Purim. “On Purim one greets their friend with the words ‘A Freilichen Purim’ (A Joyous Purim) and on Passover we say ‘A Kasherin Pesach’ (A Kosher Passover). It should be just the opposite. On Purim we should remind one another to observe the day in a ‘kosher way’, not going overboard in our merriment or drinking.”
“However on Pesach,” said the Rebbe, “we don't need reminders to observe it with all its strictures and laws. That we all know. We need to be reminded that there is nothing more important than joy in order to make Passover memorable and uplifting.”
This teaching offers us a unique perspective especially this year. Although we face many distractions and there is tension and anxiety, Seder night must be joyful and fun. Maybe more so now than ever. There is no place for melancholy.
The Passover Seder is geared for children. They deserve to feel the joys and deepest delight during this special night. The Talmud records the practice of giving children sweets to keep them awake for the Seder. Prepare a special surprise for your children at the Seder.
Natan Sharansky, who spent nine years in a Soviet prison as a Jewish refusenik, recently put out a video with five recommendations, based on personal experience, on how to get through the long days of confinement. Strikingly, he highlighted the importance of humor. As difficult as things may be, one must bring fun and playfulness to the situation in order to triumph over its hardships. This year’s Seder should be filled with singing, dancing, good cheer, and a healthy dose of good humor.
2. Why Break the Matzah?
Why do we break the matzah in half at the start of the Seder, the ritual known as ‘Yachatz’? The eminent contemporary scholar Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l (1903-1993) offered a unique answer. When the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt there were those slaves who found themselves in better conditions than others. Some had the privilege to work for more merciful masters and lived under better conditions; others found themselves in much worse circumstances. Those who were fortunate to have more would break their bread and share it with those who had less.
On the night of the Seder, we emulate the ways of our predecessors and we do the same. We are teaching that this is the way of loving kindness to share with others, even in the most dire of conditions.
We find ourselves in an unprecedented time. These are days of crisis. Often the common response in such scenarios is to behave selfishly. Our natural instincts tell us that we need to take care of ourselves and our own family members. We have all seen footage and reports of people hoarding food and toilet paper etc. in the panic and stress of this situation.
We are challenged during these days to be people of ‘chesed’, loving-kindness and maintain a deep sense of solidarity toward one another even under harsh conditions. Over the past weeks we have witnessed endless examples of heroic kindness one for the other. This has always been our path. This is symbolized by breaking the matzah in half: the fourth step of the Seder, Yachatz.
3. A Holiday of Speed
What story did the Israelites share with one another at the very first Seder? After all, the Jewish people were still in Egypt when they sat down to the first Seder ever. They ate matzah and marror (bitter herbs). But what story could they tell? The Exodus did not yet occur.
The illustrious chassidic master, Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (1730-1787), claimed that they told the same story we do of leaving Egypt. They sang of the great miracles and redemption. How was it possible? The answer, said the Rebbe, is that they were filled with so much hope and faith that they envisioned redemption, even tasted it before it occurred. (Sefer Meor Enayim, Parshat Tzav).
The Rebbe is suggesting that even during the darkest night we must remain ever hopeful and optimistic. After a long night, light suddenly emerges.
Passover is a holiday of speed. The matzah must be baked within a mere 18 minutes. The Jewish people speedily left Egypt. The dough had no time to rise. “With great haste the Jews experienced the Exodus.” Perhaps this is why the kabbalisitc writings refer to the matzah as the ‘bread of faith.’ It was the bread eaten by the slave and suddenly it was transformed into the bread of freedom; the very bread that that expressed their emancipation from slavery.
There is a lesson here: Things can quickly turn around for the best, unexpectedly.
We never give up. Brighter days will come.
4. Why An Egg?
Many have the custom to begin the Seder meal eating an egg. Why? Various answers have been offered. According to one tradition, the egg is the only food that when you heat it, it does not soften. Boil an egg and it becomes hard. This symbolizes the Jewish people: the more heat and pressure that has been applied to us as people, the tougher and stronger we become.
The notion of resilience is one that we need to tap into these days. We as a people have weathered some of the most difficult storms. Time and again, throughout our history, we have reached deep inside ourselves and, remarkably, we have found the faith and convictions to make it through, often, thriving during the most demanding situations. The Jewish people are masters of resilience.
In everyone's life there are peaks and valleys. At times of distress we should remember that we have emerged from similar episodes in the past, and that we will survive this ordeal as well. Although there is great sadness, we should not despair. Pesach carries this message for the individual as well as for the nation.
5. Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev Would Not Start the Seder Until...
It was a few hours until the Seder began and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev had an urgent message for his disciples: “I will not begin the Seder until I have 50 silk scarves, ten pounds of Turkish tobacco, and one loaf of bread!"
His disciples were stunned. "Rebbe!" they cried, "Where are we supposed to find these items?
The scarves and the tobacco are outlawed by the Czar – they are contraband – no one has any! And for the loaf of bread, it is Passover in a few hours, so where are we going to find a loaf of bread in all of Berditchev?"
Rabbi Levi was adamant, and refused to begin the Seder until they would bring him the illegal items and a loaf of bread.
His disciples ran all over the place, scouring the entire town for the items they needed. After much begging and explaining they finally managed to secure the silk scarves and Turkish tobacco and returned at once to their rebbe to show him what they had found.
"Excellent!" said Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. "But where is the loaf of bread?" With tears in their eyes the disciples pleaded, "Please, Rebbe, you must understand. Where are we to find chametz in Berditchev only hours before Passover?"
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak lifted his eyes to the heavens and began to cry. "Dear God, the Czar has outlawed the importing of silk scarves. Anyone caught wearing a scarf is sentenced to 25 years in a labor camp. Nevertheless, the people of Berditchev have at least 50 scarves! There is a death penalty for anyone caught with Turkish tobacco and the Czar has stationed hundreds of soldiers along the border to ensure it is not brought in. Nevertheless, there is plenty of Turkish tobacco to be found in Berditchev. But You, God, You have no police force or inspectors. Where are your labor camps and courts? You commanded us over 3,000 years ago to rid our houses of chametz. And not even a crumb of chametz is to be found in the entire city! Who is like your people, O Israel!"
And with that final declaration, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev sat down to begin his Passover Seder!
We can imagine Rebbe Levi Yitzchak storming heaven on the eve of Pesach this year, saying to the Almighty: “Look at your beloved people. Look at their yearning for your Torah and the opportunity to offer prayer to You. Thousands and thousands of Jews, although quarantined at home, are learning your sacred texts with one another on Zoom, studying Torah via Facebook, praying ‘together`on Whatsapp, celebrating Bar and Bat Mitzvahs online with hundreds of friends and family looking on from a screen.
And perhaps, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak is directing God’s attention to the many of the teachers and Rabbis and mental health professionals who have brought comfort and advised to so many. Or perhaps, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak is reminding the Almighty of the multitude of people who will sit in solitude at their Seder in order to ensure the safety of their family and friends.
In this same spirit, we join together Passover night and exclaim: “Father in heaven, look down upon your remarkable people, and see their devotion and commitment. Now, let us celebrate the Seder.”
6. A Prayer for All Humanity
There is a passage in the Haggadah which is often overlooked. It comes towards the end of the Seder night. We exclaim: “The soul of every living being shall bless Your Name.” The prayer of Nishmat Kol Chai. Why is this prayer included in the Haggadah?
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik zt”l (1903-1993) taught that right before we conclude the Seder we change our focus. Throughout the initial part of the Seder we celebrate the end of our oppression from slavery at the hands of the Egyptians. However as we reach the crescendo, we remind ourselves that the world is sorely in need of redemption. We pray not only for our redemption but the redemption of mankind. When reaching the prayer of ‘Nishmat Kol Chai’, the Seder night soars to spiritual heights as we pray “every mouth shall give thanks, every tongue shall swear allegiance unto You.” We are concerned not only with the Jewish people but with the welfare of people everywhere.
One of the most beloved rituals of the Seder, opening the door for Elijah which symbolizes the harbinger of the Messiah, powerfully illustrates the Jew’s perpetual hope that all mankind lives in a world free of suffering and pain.
Although we as Jews live distinctly from others around us, there are times, such as these, where we recognize our shared commonality with all mankind. We are one with our fellow man and woman. We are responsible for one another and fervently pray for the healing for all of God’s creations.
This year we recite the passage of “Nishmat Kol Chai” as a plea for healing and redemption for all humanity.
7. His Love Surrounds You
What does the word Pesach actually mean? Most commonly it is translated to mean ‘pass over’, which relates of course to the episode of God miraculously ‘passing over’ the homes of the Israelites in Egypt. However the great commentator on the Torah, Rashi (Exodus 12:13), offers another explanation: Pesach means love. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook zt”l, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine much preferred this explanation.
On the final night the Israelite slaves spent in Egypt, when they sat confined in their homes, the verse says that God ‘pasach’ over their homes. What does ‘pesach’ mean? Not passed over. Rather, the Jew felt surrounded by God’s love. They felt the Divine’s warm embrace.
This is the true meaning of the festival and one we wish to infuse within our souls at the Seder. Even if one sits alone this year, or away from close family and friends, one must know that they are not alone; God is right there at our side.
The Exodus was distinct because of an act of faith by our ancestors. Two million people entered a desolate and barren desert, where there was neither food nor water for such a multitude, clinging only to the belief that God would provide for them.
Early in the Haggadah a new name of God is introduced: ‘HaMakom’, which translates as ‘place’ (‘Baruch Hamakom Baruch Hu’). Why the change of name? When we speak of God as HaMakom, the Midrash explains it to mean “God is the place of the world.” This teaches that God embraces everybody and never deserts anyone.
The Torah attaches a mighty title to this festival: ‘Leil Shimurim’, a ‘Night of Watching’ (Exodus 12:42), a term which conveys the essence of the celebration: God is watching over us.
The story of leaving Egypt, the centerpiece of the Seder’s celebration symbolizes the absolute, unwavering trust in God that is the foundation of spirituality.