פרשת צו, תש״פ
Parshat Tzav, 5780
by Rabbi Sydni
Saturday, April 4th, 2020
A Passover Different from All Other Passovers
This year, I have heard too many people say, “I think I am just giving up on the Passover seder.” There is so much to worry about already, and the border to Texas, where I can buy my Passover cake mix and jarred horseradish, is closed. It is just too much hassle. A few weeks ago, when the course of the virus seemed much more short-term, I heard too many people bring up the Torah’s idea of Pesah Sheini, an ancient substitute Passover celebration for those who were ritually impure during the first. “Why not just have seder in May, on Pesah Sheini instead? Perhaps then we’ll be able to visit our families, to focus on cleaning the house and cooking a big meal when tensions have lowered?” Even pushing aside the now-recognized knowledge that this virus will most likely still be a threat in May, Pesah is coming this Wednesday night, and that celebration is here to stay. This year, one in which we are grasping for glimpses of freedom at every moment, is precisely one of those years for which Passover was established.
Parashat Tzav describes the permanent fire, never to be extinguished, upon the sacrificial altar - אש תמיד תוקד על המזבח לא תכבה (Leviticus 6:6). Even without a modern Temple, our job is to keep that fire going - the fire of our Jewish practice, belief, and identity cannot stop for anything. Seventy percent of modern Jews celebrate a Passover seder each year; keeping the fire of our Jewish tradition going must mean keeping the intrigue of the Passover seder in full force this year.
This year, Pesah reminds us of the resources we have in the Jewish tradition to help get us through even a pandemic. The seder is filled with blessings over things we often forget to bless - over the vegetables that are still plentiful in our markets, over our ability to keep ourselves safe through washing hands, over the wine or grape juice that represents the luxuries we have in this world. What a luxury it is to be able to watch movies on the internet, to read books at home, to connect with family instantly through the phone or computer! Through liturgy and discussion, the seder reminds of the great freedom we enjoy each day, even in times such as these.
Through shared words and customs practiced at the same time each year, the seder reminds us of our great connection to so many around the world. It reminds us that each action we take - wearing a face mask, choosing to stay home, donating to a food bank - affects so many beyond ourselves and the people we love. And with the reenactment of the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the seder tells us to live every day as if we had been slaves in Egypt. Our seder teaches us that we are not the only ones who need the basic human freedoms of health and safety; that even those living in prison, those living in detention centers at our borders, those Muslims living in internment camps in China need the same soap, hand sanitizer, protection equipment, and human connection that we do right here. As people who intimately know persecution, our memory-filled seder reminds us to dig deeply into our wells of compassion for all those who do not yet have the freedom they need.
Yes, this year is unprecedented in the living memory of so many of us, and yet, we still have the emotional, spiritual, and physical resources to celebrate our freedom and our dedication to Jewish continuity beginning this Wednesday night. Even if you do not have your favorite brand of horseradish or cake mix, you have access to meat and vegetables, to matzo and eggs. You, as part of Agudath Achim, have an entire community of people who have offered to go shopping for you. You have access to a free online haggadah, and if you would rather have a copy in print, Jackquie or I can disinfect a haggadah from the synagogue and send that to you by mail. You have access to an online seder with your community members next Wednesday evening at five. You have everything you need.
One of my colleagues stated on Facebook the other day, “Remember, this year, you are allowed to have a shvach seder.” This year, you do not have to prepare your normal banquet of food if that gives you added stress. If you normally line your cabinets with aluminum foil before Passover, you can ease away from that practice this year. I am even giving you permission to eat kitniyot over the holiday if that would ease your shopping woes. We are under a whole lot of stress this Passover season; we need a celebration, a reminder of our relative freedom, and a reminder that our people have been somewhere like this so many times before.
Ultimately, this year, we need that ritual clinging onto the hope of freedom - freedom from the confines of our home and from the confines of emergency room horror scenes. Towards the end of our Passover seder, we invite in the prophet Elijah, who shows up in the Talmud as a symbol that the Messiah is just about to come. Each year, we leave our doors open in hopes that Elijah will come to comfort our worries and our fears. Each year, when Elijah’s cup stays full once again, we sing l’shanah ha-ba’ah birushalayim, Next year in Jerusalem! When we sing “next year in Jerusalem,” we’re not just hoping for a 2021 Israel trip, but rather, for a more perfect world everywhere we find ourselves. We need our Passover seder this year because we need the encouragement that this pandemic will be defeated. We need to be able to hold in our minds the vision of seeing our children, parents, grandchildren, or grandparents in person again, of embracing a friend or holding a hand. Through good food, rituals, blessings, and charity (if you can give it right now), celebrate our festival of present and freedom with me!