The Challenges, and Beauty, of This Year’s Passover
JNS.org – In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared a complete lockdown for Passover seder night, threatening arrest or a fine to anyone found on the streets. No, he wasn’t overreacting, and he’s not planning on turning the country into a police state.
He simply knows his customers. He knows that we are not only a stiff-necked people, but also homing pigeons, programmed in our DNA to be with loved ones on Pesach. It’s a drive so strong, so deeply ingrained that we are willing to risk everything, even our health, to be with family to celebrate our release from Egyptian slavery… together.
Why else would young adults return home from wherever in the world they happen to be to spend time with families they may not always see eye to eye with? Why else would parents spend money they don’t have to fly across the globe, sing an off-key “Chad Gadya,” and lead cousins in a rambunctious search for the afikomen? (She hid it where?) These parents know that they’re doing nothing less than imprinting the next generation with memories powerful enough to last a lifetime.
But Netanyahu knew that as endearing as this instinct is, in the season of coronavirus, this kind of togetherness was also a really bad idea.
So this year, there were no cousins to wrestle with, no aunts’ matzah balls, no uncles’ corny jokes to groan over, no grandparents to applaud the kids’ (nearly flawless) iteration of “The Four Questions.”
This year that same love of family was best expressed by staying apart.
It didn’t hit home for me until I unearthed the Pesach dishes, the cracked platter grandma used for gefilte fish, the elephant mug from when our youngest was three, the four blue plates that began as a set of 24 back when they were all needed for a seder that sprawled from dining room to living room. I also came upon hand-scrawled recipes tucked into old cookbooks, recorded in the faded handwriting of those long gone. Recipes promising mile-high sponge cake and matzah popovers, savory stuffed cabbage and cinnamon-apple kugel in quantities big enough to feed “all those who are hungry to come and eat.”
This year’s foods are far simpler, their quantities minuscule compared to the Pesachs of yesteryear. That inevitable scaling down says much about our lives this spring — a time when each one of us has been handed our individual assignment.
If you’re home with a spouse and children, you know that you’ve been tasked to deepen your bonds with each one of them (and, yes, to “count to 10” a hundred times a day), to have those open talks you never had time for before. Alone with your spouse? Then much of your corona-time syllabus is about pushing past the frustration, the worry, and the ennui to plumb the depths of a brand-new honesty, vulnerability, and, at the end of the day, just maybe some new sweetness springing up between you.
But what if you find yourself at this point in your journey living alone, as I do? Strangely enough, our assignment has the potential of being the most exciting of all: piecing our life story together like an immense three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.
It’s done without even the slightest effort, freed of the static of multi-tasking. In the silence, we meet a barrage of long-forgotten memories: the smell of a summer night chasing fireflies with the neighborhood kids, that seder when we were allowed to drink wine with the grown-ups for the first time, walking offstage with the diploma that seemed to open up the whole world, the joy of each baby’s first cry — and, for those of us who’ve reached that age, the wonder of holding a just-born grandchild.
Memories that pop up unannounced and unbidden from that deep place where they’d been long buried — that emerge in a flash of light — each one offering another clue to the mystery of who we really are and always have been. With this new gift of inner vision, maybe that’s why this enforced hibernation is happening in the year 20/20.
The truth is that this meteor shower of memories, the joyful and the painful alike, light up our soul’s sky so we can see clearly the multitudinous gifts our very own Creator has showered upon us. Even when those blessings now include coming together with loved ones over Zoom, Skype, or FaceTime.
Regardless of whom we live with, one assignment we all share is cranking up our personal values a notch or two. What, after all, do we really need of those things we so desperately wanted only a month ago? Do we truly listen, or do we just wait impatiently until it’s our turn to talk? Are we compassionate with others? Are we compassionate with ourselves? And, at the end of the day, the camera pulls way back and we’re forced to ask ourselves the Big Question: Who’s really in charge here?
Because even the most grimly determined atheist has got to be wondering about that one right now. The evidence is mounting all around the globe that there really is only the One who brought us to this time and place to heal ourselves and the world because He has every faith that we can pull it off this time around. And in case I needed more evidence, here in Israel spring snuck in while I was holed up in my apartment. By the time I finally emerged, the baby pomegranate blossoms had peeked out, the red poppies were waving in the breeze, and the orange blossoms were exuding a perfume that has got to be what heaven smells like.
It’s proof-positive that whether we’re witnessing it (timidly venturing out in masks and gloves) or whether we’re not, spring’s promise of new life, and Pesach’s promise of new freedom, are two things no virus can put out of business.
So this year, we cooked enough of our beloved Pesach dishes for our kitchens to smell like we’re expecting the 24 guests of old, we rolled out our best tablecloth and got dressed up for seder even though no one would see us. Just because it felt right and because, even when it’s a seder for one, we know we’re not truly alone.
By the end of the night, it began to dawn on me that, in truth, we never really did all this grand-scale Pesach-ing to impress others, but because it was our sacred duty to imprint those memories onto the next generation. And because our very own Creator, the same One who took us out of Egypt with a mighty Hand, has told us in no uncertain terms that’s what we need to do.
And no matter what, no matter where, and no matter with whom, we sang it loud and proud: Dayenu. “It would have been enough.”
And you know what?
It actually was.
Deborah Fineblum is a freelancer based in Israel and writes frequently for JNS.