Mah nishtanah ha-laila ha-zeh? How is this night different from all other nights?
Mah nishtanah ha-Pesach ha-zeh? How is this Passover different from all other Passovers?
In many ways.
Because of Covid-19, many of us will be separated from people we care about, people with whom we usually celebrate Passover. That means we won’t eat the foods we’re used to sharing, or use the haggadot we’re used to reading. We might be too tired to clean our houses – or they may already be tidy from several weeks at home!
Trips have been cancelled. We’ll be on Zoom or Facetime instead.
More deeply, we’ll feel connected with the Hebrews and the Egyptians of the story – understanding better than ever before the dread of plague, the foreboding of darkness without and within, the terror of staying in our homes as we pray that Death will pass us by.
We’ll feel connected with the Jews of the Expulsion from Spain, eating hurried meals hastily gathered. We’ll remember the Jews of the Holocaust, nourished only by the recollection of seders past.
Fortunately, neither of these realities are ours. Our conditions may not be everything we could hope for, but they aren’t all bad, either: we can shop and find everything we need – including matzoh, we can see and hear our loved ones, we can drink wine to our heart’s content. What’s more, we can take our time and ponder the deep truths embedded in the story of the Exodus. (In what ways are we enslaved? Why is freedom so fragile? What plagues contemporary society? Why does life contain both bitter and sweet? Who are today’s Pharaohs?)
This Pesach, we will not inhabit the Promised Land of the “Perfect Seder” – grandmother’s brisket, an angelic voice singing the four questions, a seder that’s neither too long nor too short – but neither are we are in the Egypt of the Inquisition or the Holocaust. We are somewhere in between. Our tradition calls that “in between” the Wilderness. It is a time of uncertainty, confusion and danger as well as comfort, plenty, and hope. It contains both good and bad.
In this way, we are like the middle matzoh stacked on our Passover tables, the one that becomes the afikomen – broken down the middle, half lost and half found, fragile but joyful nonetheless.