I have deleted every event on my calendar for the foreseeable future—everything except Passover. No matter how much I resist, Passover will arrive as it has for thousands of years on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan.
Passover marks the beginning of spring. It’s a holiday of liberation, a holiday where family and friends gather around my dining room table and read from the quintessential Passover text, the Haggadah. “Haggadah” means “telling,” and for centuries, we Jews have been telling each other our origin story—the story of the Exodus when a ragtag group of people enslaved in Egypt emerged as a vibrant nation.
Passover is coming, and yet we wake up to a world that feels like the much-too-long Blue Law Sundays of my childhood. Businesses are shuttered. There is hardly any movement on the streets. The claustrophobia of having nowhere to go is the prevailing feeling. It was only a few weeks ago that the coronavirus was menacing some faraway country. I laughed at my sister for stockpiling toilet paper early on. It was unthinkable that my favorite holiday wouldn’t include family and friends. But here we are. Welcome to the Passover edition of the “Pandemic of 2020.”
In an effort to outwit the pandemic, spring is abruptly canceled, freedoms are severely curtailed and we’re confined to squares on Zoom, waving and blowing kisses to our loved ones. It taxes the soul to live this way. My mother asks when this will be over. I don’t know. I try to keep her calm as I tamp down my own panic. I want to stop arguing with my husband about stocking up on Clorox wipes that we can’t find anyway. I’m afraid we’ll run out of food and medicine. Anything can set off this fear—terrifying statistics, news of a friend on a ventilator.
I’m traditional when it comes to Passover. It has always been a physical holiday for me. Aside from the spring cleaning, I shop weeks before the first seder. Every year, I come very close to hoarding matzah meal, macaroons and horseradish. I switch out my everyday plates and cutlery for dinnerware and silver that languishes in the basement until I bring them up for the annual eight-day festival.
It feels as if I undertook these preparations for the holiday a hundred years ago—before Passover food shopping became a death-defying act. They happened before I fractured my shoulder, and now I can barely lift a plate, never mind move an entire dinner service upstairs. Passover in my house is therefore greatly modified. This year, observing the holiday has to be good enough. I won’t change over my kitchen to the extent I did in years past. Passover preparations have become part of the emergency through which we are living.
There’s a lot of buzz about gathering this year in virtual seders. The plan is to commune with one another in our Zoom cubicles. I’m hopeful that will work with a ritual meal that has been a home celebration for centuries. After all, the Passover seder doesn’t require us to hold it in a synagogue. Its rituals are carried out at the intimacy of the dining room table. Anyone who can read from the Haggadah can lead the ceremony. We will need to take care in our virtual seders of not going through the motions. It’s too easy to drift online.
This moment has not been the first time Judaism has accommodated a new world foisted on us. After Judaism’s two ancient temples were destroyed over 500 years apart, the rabbis necessarily reinvented Judaism. It was genius the way they made it workable for the diaspora. When Jews scattered all over the world, the rabbis asked them to expand their imaginations and transform their tables into the altar of the non-existent temple.
The holiday of Passover is a leading reminder of how virtual post-temple Judaism became. In the daily liturgy, Jews are asked to remember the Exodus as if they experienced it themselves. That feat of recreation is the crux of Judaism. Jews know how to reach back through the millennia and relive the redemption of Passover. In that act of recreation, the Exodus narrative has been overlaid with historical tragedies, including the Holocaust. I need to believe that we can survive this current pandemic and add it to our arsenal of Passover stories.
Every year the seder ends with the declaration, “Next year in Jerusalem!” The hope is that the Messiah will have finally arrived, restoring us to the land of Israel. This year, we’ll also add a wish that at the moment is as improbable as the imminent coming of the Messiah: to celebrate Passover again with actual people seated at our dining room tables.