(April 3, 2020 / JNS) While many of the Jewish holidays and ritual observances center around family and community, Passover, and specifically the seder, stands out as unique—the quintessential family gathering. Multigenerational families gather together to expound on the story of the Exodus from Egypt, and we sing and recite the different portions of the seder liturgy. Our homes are filled with guests both from within and beyond our immediate communities and neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, this Passover will be different from all others as families practice social distancing as a precaution to COVID-19. This year’s Passover seder will be conducted strictly within the walls of our private homes and will commemorate the evening of the original Exodus (more than 3,000 years ago), when we were warned—for our personal safety—against venturing out of our homes.
Our seder will be smaller, and we won’t be celebrating with neighbors and extended family for the holiday. Many will celebrate the holiday in complete or relative isolation.
As a result of this, millions of Jews around the world will soon focus on how to inject a much-needed dose of inspiration into our pared-down Passover seder experience. Here are three recommendations of how we can do this:
- We can concentrate on the true meaning of holiness, and the sanctity of life itself. Today, there is no more holy act than social distancing; preserving life takes precedence over everything.
- A seder without family and friends can impel us to better comprehend, and act upon, the painful reality that there are so many within our communities who live in isolation—and not just during extraordinary pandemic conditions. As we concentrate on acts of lovingkindness to those in need, we need to pledge, individually and communally, that when this plague ends, we rededicate ourselves to care for those whose loneliness and isolation are not the result of a public-health emergency.
- We can derive inspiration from that which truly unites us. Unity can be achieved by standing together, by gathering together, in one place and at one time. But unity does not need to be a physical thing; it can likewise be achieved by separation—by encouraging our individuality and focusing on our uniqueness and our potential. As we practice social distancing in a physical sense, we can recommit to find our unique voice, and exploit our unique talents and abilities for the betterment of the world.
We declare in the Passover Haggadah that “in each and every generation, we are expected to view ourselves as if we ourselves left Egypt.” This is not to be understood as a mandated flight of fantasy. Rather, it is a challenge to see beyond ourselves; to identify not as individuals, but as part of the broader community.
Without a doubt, this feeling will prevail on this year’s seder nights. Now, as at the time of the Exodus, we will hunker down in our homes, the place where we turn for safety. But our thoughts, our feelings and our prayers will extend far beyond those walls.
We will join not only with the eternal Jewish story, but with a nation and world full of people that has similarly sought temporary refuge in the safety of their own homes, so that we can all soon emerge to celebrate a future of health, meaning and freedom.
Allen Fagin is the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union (OU) and Rabbi Moshe Hauer is the incoming executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, the umbrella organization for American Orthodox Jewry with more than 400 congregations in its synagogue network.
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