As we move closer and closer to Passover, it is getting harder and harder for me to really plan for this important holiday. I have never wanted Passover to go away before. I love Passover. Since I can remember celebrating this holy day as a child, I would look forward to it. As an adult, I would spend hours thinking, planning, inviting, getting ready for the seders. And this year, there will be three of us at my table. I know many of you will have less. The three of us just can not produce the same kind of energy and excitement a whole house of people can. For those of you who are benefitting from virtual life, I am grateful to know that you will be enjoying others company.
For me, I have been contemplating what it means to have time march on when I want it to stop. Not a new idea, just the one I am focused on this morning. Many people are talking about Pesach Sheni, the second Passover mentioned in the Torah which states if you cannot bring the Paschal offering at Passover you should do it on Pesach Sheni. Unfortunately Pesach sheni is also during the time we will be sheltering in place. Others have suggested that we have Pesach Sheni when we can regardless of the calendar, sometime around Shavuot. I keep wondering if the lesson of this virus is that life keeps moving, time keeps moving, whether we want it to or not. Pesach this year, will still begin the evening of April 8th whether or not we are ready. It will come and go whether or not it was the best seder or the worst I ever experienced. Truly the lesson might be how do I celebrate what Passover is going to be, what this time of sheltering in place will be, rather than all it cannot be. Either way this Passover will be one I will remember. Maybe if I am lucky it will be one I never hope to repeat and equally grateful for what it turned out to become.
Some of the following minhagim/customs work better in families than alone. Others can be done regardless of how many people are at the table. Either way feel free to pick and choose the customs that speak to you this year and file away those that will speak to you in future years. For the coolest aspect of time marching on is that we might not have the seders we wanted this year but there will be a next year, b’ezrat hashem/with Gd’s help. And I hope and pray that seder is also one big celebration of freedom not only from oppressors but also from the coronovirus.
During the seders we drink four cups of wine/grape juice. There have been many different interpretations of what each cup could mean. Here is one from the 16th century mystical rabbis who identified the four cups with the four matriarchs of Israel. The Maharal of Prague and Rav Isaiah Horowitz of Tsfat explain the cup of kiddush stands for Sarah who was the mother of a community of converts, believers by choice
The cup of Maggid is for Rebecca who knew how to mother both Esau and Jacob, two opposite natures.
The cup of the blessing after eating represents Rachel whose son Joseph provided the whole family of Jacob with bread in a time of great famine.
The cup of Hallel is for Leah who came to realize that the pursuit of the impossible, Jacob’s love, must give way to appreciation of what one has. When her fourth child was born, Judah, she praised Gd:’This time I will thank Gd’ (Gen. 29:35) (I found this teaching in the haggadah: A night to remember: The haggadah of Contemporary Voices
Early in the seder we break the matzah. There are both serious and fun traditions associated with the breaking of the matzah. I remember as a child, my father would make us look away as he broke the matzah. He would then hold it together as if it never was broken. We had to guess where the line was. Some years it was easier than others!
In the Syrian community, the custom of breaking the middle matzah on the seder table into pieces can sometimes take on Kabbalistic meaning. Matzah broken into the shape of the Hebrew letters “daled” and “vav” correspond to numbers, which in turn add up to 10, representing the 10 holy emanations of God.
Here is a kavannah for the breaking of the matzah from in the haggadah A night to remember: The haggadah of contemporary voices:
“The Pesach story begins in a broken world, amidst slavery and oppression. The sound of the breaking of the matza sends us into that fractured existence, only to become whole again when we find the broken half, the afikoman, at the end of the Seder. This brokenness is not just a physical or political situation: It reminds us of all those hard, damaged places within ourselves. All those narrow places from which we want to break to free. In Hebrew, Egypt is called Mitzrayim, reminding us of the word tzar, narrow. Thus, in Hassidic thought, mitzrayim symbolizes the inner straits that trap our souls. Yet even here we can find a unique value, as the Hassidic saying teaches us: ‘There is nothing more whole-than a broken heart.’ Pass out a whole matza to every seder participant, inviting them to take a moment to ponder this entrance into a broken world, before they each break the matza themselves.”
At the beginning of the seder we welcome the stranger into our seder. For most of us our guests have already arrived. If we are opening the door it is symbolic. But in the middle ages, poor people would line up outside wealthier members of their communities houses. When they got to that part of the seder, they would open the door in and their neighbors would enter to enjoy the seder with them. Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, the 16th century commentator from Prague known as the Kli Yakar, wrote that anyone who was never a stranger in his life cannot feel the pain of the stranger and does not suffer together with the stranger. Anyone who himself has been a stranger, though, knows in his very core the agony of the stranger, and would never allow anything which he himself finds hateful to happen to another.
Although in most of our seders it is the custom for the youngest to recite the four questions, the rabbis never meant to limit the number of questions rather there was a minimum of four. There is a tradition of giving candy to those who ask a good question. Questions regardless of the answers are seen as ways of telling the story. For the answers we get changes depending on the questions asked.
There are so many creative ways to tell the story of Passover. Here are just three that we have used. I can’t wait to hear from you others that you have found meaningful. One year we collected all the dress up clothes and put them in our living room. As our guests arrived we gave them the name of a person in the Exodus story. They then had to create their costume on the spot. When they were done we acted out the story instead of telling it. Another year we sat around the table. At each setting was the name of a person from the story except for me. For I was the reporter of the day. I then interviewed each person in the story developing the story out of their perspective of what had happened. Another time we gave out clay after dinner and asked the children to make something from the exodus story. Before we finished the seder they showed us all their creations and we revisited the telling from their eyes.
As one tells the story, one cannot help but get to the 10 plagues. Now first there is the cultural difference between those of you who are cultured and use a spoon to pour out your plague and those of us who are clearly lacking refinement who remove the grape juice/wine with our pinkey fingers.
In addition, many of us pour out more than ten plagues. The first 10 for the biblical plagues and the rest for our contemporary ones. Here is one suggestion from the Jewish Women’s Archive.
1. Inequity-Access to affordable housing, quality healthcare, nutritious food, good schools, and higher education is far fom equal. The disparity between rich and poor is growing, and opportunities for upward mobility are limited.
2. Entitlement-Too many people consider themselves entitled to material comfort, economic security, and other privileges of middle-class life without hard work.
3. Fear-Fear of ‘the other’ produces and reinforces xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment, antisemitism, homophobia, and transphobia.
4. Greed-Profits are a higher priority than the safety of workers or the health of the environment. The top one percent of the American population controls 42% of the country’s financial wealth, while corporations send jobs off-shore and American workers’ right to organize and bargain collectively is threatened.
5. Distraction-In this age of constand connectedness, we are easily distracted by an unending barrage of information, much of it meaningless, with no way to discern what is important.
6. Distortion of reality-The media constructs and society accepts unrealistic expectations, leading to eating disorders and an unhealthy obsession with appearance for both.
7. Unawareness-It is easy to be unaware of the consequences our consumre choices have for the environment and for workers at home and abroad. Do we know where or how our clothes are made? Where or how our food is produced?
8. Discrimination-While we celebrat our liberation from bondage in Egypt, too many people still suffer from discrimination. For example, blacks in the United States are imprisoned at more than five times the rates of whites, and Hispanics are locked up at nearly double the white rate. Women earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. At 61 cents to the dollar, the disparity is even more shocking in Jewish communal organizations.
9. Silence-Every year, 4.8 million cases of domestic violence against American women are reported. We do not talk about things that are disturbing, such as rape, sex trafficking, child abuse, domestic violence, and elder abuse, even though they happen every day in our own communities.
10. Feeling overwhelmeed and disempowered-When faced with these modern ‘plagues,’ how often do we doubt or question our own ability to make a difference? How often do we feel paralyzed because we do not know what to do to bring about change?
In Yemen, instead of spilling ten drops of wine from their cups when the ten plagues are mentioned, they pour ten drops from one glass to another and throw that glass into the garden to cast away the plagues.
Soon after the ten plagues comes the prayer Dayenu. Dayenu is a prayer for gratitude. Greatful for everything that in the end the liberated Israelites had received. What are we greatful for this year? Here is one contemporary prayer written by Annie Matan.
I have known fear and I have known comfort
And here, in this moment
My eyes are wide open
My heart is wide open
With each step, my heart pounds
And I can feel my lips stretching into a smile
The sounds of the sea are all around
And the sounds of children
You are here
Between me and this miracle
In my heart
In the winged ones above us
And in the spray of the sea that cools my face
And I have been so tired
And I have been so afraid
But here, in this moment
Between the certainty of death and loss
And the wonder of an open way ahead that seems to go on forever
Between the sea and the sea
Here I am
And here You are
You are a gift
I can see with my feet on this muddy earth
With the tips of my fingers
Tracing wet lines through the walls of water that hold me in
Hold me up
Hold me close to You
You are here
Pulling me to safety
to Your side
One mud-soaked step at a time.
The opposite of Dayenu/it is enough is lo dayenu/it is not enough. This prayer, Lo Dayenu, was written by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.
If we had sparked a human rights revolution that would unite people all over the world and not followed our present day Nachshons as they help us part the sea of white supremacy and institutional racism-Lo Dayenu
If we had followed Nachshons like the youth leaders in Ferguson and not heeded the words they spoke from Black Liberation Leader Assata Shakur: It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains-Lo Dayenu
If we had learned and chanted the words from Assata Shakur and not protested violence by militarized police-lo dayenu
If we had protested police use of tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray and rifles pointed at protesters and forgotten that we are all t’tselem elohim, created in Gd’s image-Lo Dayenu
If we had remembered that we are all created in Gd’s image and not affirmed Black Lives Matter-Lo Dayenu
If we had chanted and cried out that Black Lives Matter and not remembered Rekia Boyd, Alyanna Jones, Shantel Davis, Yvette Smith, Tyisha Miller, Black women and girls also killed by police-Lo Dayenu
If we had recalled the words of Eicha and not called to attention the school to prison pipeline and the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people-lo Dayenu
If we had called attention to the ‘new Jim Crow’system-and not truly sh’ma (listen0-Lo Dayenu
If we had truly listened to the stories, pain and triumphs of our brothers and sisters of color without feeling the need to correct, erase or discredit them and not recognize the pharaohs of this generation-lo dayenu
If we had worked to dismantle the reigns of today’s Pharoahs and had not joined the new civil rights movement-lo dayenu
If we had marched, chanted, listened, learned and engaged in this new civil rights movement and not ralized that this story is our story, including our people and requiring our full participation-lo dayenu
If we had concluded that our work is not done, that the story is still being written, that now is still the moment to be involved and that we haven’t yet brought our gifts and talents to the Black Lives Matter movement-Lo Dayenu
While this is not the first instance of state violence against Black people or the first human rights movement, it is indeed OUR time to setp up and make a difference. We must work together to progress fro Lo Dayenu to Dayenu in the coming years.
Our dessert at the end of the seder is the afikomen. I grew up with the children hiding it and our father finding it. Most people I met have had the adults hide it and the children find it. Either way the kids get the better end of the deal. The rabbis were clear that this tradition was to keep the children engaged throuhout the seder. Ilyse and my kids were rather competitive as kids so we started hiding one afikomen in an envelope for each child at the seder. The kids could only find the afikomen with their name on it. Of course that meant that everyone got a prize, often a book having something to do with freedom on an age appropriate level. In Iraq, they would tie the afikomen onto the back of one child at the seder . I am not sure what the rest of this custom was like. Do you know?
There are many songs added to the second half of the seder, filled with music. Some years we handed out instruments to accompany our singers. There are many different games that encompany these songs. Here are only two: to sing Ha Gadya in one breath or to do hand motions to who knows one. I am sure Cantor Kintisch can share many more.
Finally we end our sederim with singing Next Year in Jerusalem. The Ethiopian and Karite Jews end the seder by telling stories about what life would be like in Jerusalem, next year when they hope to get there.
The first of the four questions is How is this night different from all other nights. What if it becomes how is this year different from all other years. Gerry Sadusky said it is not when will life go back to normal but rather what will we take away from this experience that will define who we are as people. What will this years seder bring to me on April 8th sheltering in place?