I’m writing this on the eve of the one holiday that has inspired us to sustain a kind of religious ritual at our house: Passover. The seder, which was a tedious affair when I was a child (except for the explosive horseradish on matzo, my favorite part), has evolved in our family into an open-ended improvisation on the themes of freedom, slavery, history, myth, racism, injustice, hope, and, most important, food. And wine.
Many features of even the most traditional Passover seder are oddly moving: the dipping of spring greens into salt water, having to put a roasted lamb shank on the table, leaving the door open so that hungry strangers might come in and partake of the meal, and the central role that children play in the proceedings, with the youngest asking the enigmatic and essential four questions. Why is this night different, indeed.
It’s become quite popular to adapt and reinvent the seder for modern times. The haggadah, or book of prayers and instructions that guide the seder (when I was a kid, it was the Maxwell House edition, of course), must now exist in thousands of forms and revisions.
This Passover will be remembered for a different kind of question. How do we celebrate freedom, hope, and community in isolation? The essence of the seder, gathering family, friends, and visitors to tell stories, break the “bread of affliction,” and exchange blessings, is forbidden.
The storytelling on Passover revolves around the exodus from Egypt, and I’ve always found that one of the most gripping parts of the tale is the ten plagues that God inflicts on the Egyptians to get Pharaoh to change his mind and free his Jewish slaves. At this point in the seder, the plagues are named, one by one, and each guest spills a drop of wine on her plate to symbolize the Egyptians’ suffering: the rivers turning to blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, blighted livestock, boils, a hail of fire, locusts, darkness, and, finally, the horrific slaying of the first-born.
This year the idea of a plague is no longer an ancient story. It is the central reality of our lives. If we were able to come together for our favorite festival meal, we wouldn’t have to try to imagine the Egyptians’ anguish. The haggadah says that each of us should feel as if we ourselves had been there in Egypt in the time of slavery. Now I understand what that means.
We cannot gather around the table this year for our seder, but when we can resume the rituals that connect us to each other they will have a new depth of meaning. And even in isolation, we can still tell stories.