Passover in the Middle of COVID-19

I’m not alone in saying that Passover has always been one of my favorite holidays. Now, I know what you are thinking – but you have to eat all of that matzah, the Seder takes a long time, and you get hungry, and there are so many limitations on what you can eat. Every year, I think about the Passover Seder in the context of that year. How can you celebrate Passover in
the middle of COVID-19?

What new meaning can I draw from an ancient ritual and observances to encourage people about the importance of continuing our Passover traditions? In the past, if you had asked me the main theme of Passover, I would have stated it is a holiday in which we are
supposed to imagine ourselves being slaves and then being redeemed. We reenact this journey, and we are also supposed to experience freedom.

But that didn’t seem to fit in these last two years. In many ways, our world has been enslaved to a pathogen and many people were not experiencing freedom. Individuals felt more alone than ever before – we were experiencing both a physical and physiological plague. I needed a new theme to focus on. I needed something that would motivate me to clean my house, put aside chametz (leaven) for the week and prepare for the Seder…and then I found it.

The entire Seder is one extensive story of hope.

First, during the Seder, traditionally, we each take a bit of our glass of wine (or in my case, grape juice) and pour it into Elijah’s cup. We hope that Elijah will visit our home and bring peace (although the joke last year was that if Elijah visited my neighbors, he better stay six feet away from us) Why do we do this year after year? Do we truly believe that Elijah will visit us? I remember as a child, peering into the cup and somehow convincing myself that some of the wine was missing. Why? Even as a child, I wanted to believe so badly that a better time was coming. Elijah represented hope that the world was going to be better; that everything was going to be okay. The first thing Elijah is said to do when he arrives at our homes is to answer all our questions and declare the Messianic
age. In a time of unknowns, we open the door for Elijah to be filled with the hope that one day soon, we will have answers to the problems of our society and our world. Elijah represents the hope deep within us for a peaceful world.

Second, at the end of our Seder, we say: L’shanah ha’baa b’yerushalayim – Next year may we be in Jerusalem. Are you planning on spending Passover in Jerusalem? I’m working on going to Israel, but I won’t be there on Passover. So why do we say it? Just like in the case of Elijah, it is a statement of hope. This phrase is supposed to evoke a desire to rebuild what has been torn down. Whether it is referring to a desire for Jerusalem to continue to prosper or a desire for our lives to be rebuilt, it evokes a sense of hope. It is a prayer for ultimate redemption, for peace and perfection for the entire world. Wherever we are now – however we have celebrated our Passover this year, may it be better next year. May we be where and with whom we want next year at our Seder.

Lastly, have you ever wondered why the Torah doesn’t end with us entering the Land of Israel? We spend so much time wandering in the desert – one would have expected the end of the Torah to be: “And they entered the Land of Israel and they all lived happily ever after.” But that isn’t what happened. Instead, the Israelites are on the brink of that next step. Moses sees the Promised Land and the Israelites are ready to enter the Land, but the Torah ends before they set foot in the Promised Land. Why? Perhaps it is more meaningful to have the Torah end with the Israelites looking forward. It ends looking to the whole future of Israel. We must use our imagination to recreate what the next step of the Israelites’ journey will be. It is a script that has not yet been written.

How similar does that sound to our lives at the moment? Our future is a script unwritten. We hope that the world will heal and yet we grasp on to any familiarities and sense of normalcy that we can find. To me, that is why I needed to have a Passover Seder with my family and my community these last two years, even if it was on Zoom. I needed some semblance of normalcy to encourage me to hope that the future will be better. I needed to place the cup of Elijah to remind me that God has promised that there will be a time when the world is healed and experiencing Shalom, peace, wholeness. I needed to say L’shana Habaah b’yersushalayim to evoke my desire to rebuild what has fallen apart. When I remind myself of the plight of the Israelites, I remember that redemption is possible.

As I sit around our family table this year on the First Night or at the shul on the Second Night (in person or on Zoom) and sing the songs and discuss our current plagues – I hope to experience a sense of peace. I yearn for a time when Elijah comes to visit, bringing a time when we can all be together physically and returns a sense of wholeness to our world. Pesach means hope.
Rabbi Scolnic