The Passover seders of my childhood were magical and unforgettable. Each year, four generations of thirty or more people would cram into my great-grandmother’s tiny apartment on the North Side of Chicago where the dining room table had been extended all the way into the living room and all the men’s chairs had been plumped up with colorful pillows so that they could recline like true free men. (The women had no pillows on their chairs, but most of them barely sat down, since they were always in and out of the kitchen, serving course after course)
The table was covered with a magnificent hand-made tablecloth which my great grandmother had brought to America from Hungary in 1911; the dishes and the crystal glasses gleamed like new since they were only used one week a year (we always changed our dishes for Pesach), and air was redolent with enchanting and enticing smells – homemade gefilte fish, matza ball soup, chopped liver made by hand in a wooden bowl, fresh horseradish shredded from the roots that my grandmother grew in her backyard garden, chicken, brisket, potato kugel and other delicacies that made us dizzy with desire.
The seder seemed endless to my young mind as the Haggadah was chanted in Hebrew, Yiddish, Hungarian and English by my great-grandfather, my grandfather, my great-uncles, my father, and my uncles, while the women gossiped and my siblings, cousins and I spent our time trying to figure out where the Afikomen might be hidden. Looking back, it was another world from another time, now lost and never to be recovered.
By the time I was in college, our seder had moved to my parents’ house. My great-grandparents and my grandfather had passed away, and my grandmother and my mother now did all the cooking while my sister, brothers and I set the table and planned the seder. Even after I graduated and moved to New York, I always flew home to Chicago for what had become the touchstone of my Jewish identity – family, tradition, ritual, love, and of course, food.
The table was still long and full, but now all the guests were our aunts, uncles and cousins, some of our parents’ friends, and any friends of ours that had no place to spend Pesach. Now the Haggadah was in Hebrew and English and we all participated, singing joyfully, asking questions and discussing the meaning of freedom.
One year, my brother David brought home five of his fellow medical students because they were all from New York. Among them was a beautiful girl named Bonnie whom my entire family immediately fell in love with. It took David a little longer, but recently they celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary. Sitting at their seder table this weekend will be their three children and their spouses and their four grandchildren.
For many years, I would either spend the seders with my family or friends, but when I became a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, I began to conduct the Temple Seders on the first night of Pesach. Two years ago, we had 180 people - the entire Chapel at the Irmas Campus was filled with congregants, families and their friends, people of all ages, reading, singing, blessing and dipping together. The tables were full, and my heart was full as we all shared the ancient story of our slavery and redemption. As the years passed, my seders had grown bigger, not smaller.
And then came 2020.
A year we will never forget, and a Passover like no other for me and so many others. I sat completely alone at my dining room table, peering at a zoom screen at members of my family, including my daughter. The lone kiddush cup, the scantly filled seder plate, the single bowl of soup all looked so sad on the table. For the first time in my life, I did not have a second seder. I just didn’t have the heart.
Every year on Passover, we tell the story of how our ancestors moved from slavery to freedom. We recount how they left Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, which also means “the narrow places” and celebrated the glorious gift of liberation. Each year we are commanded to act as if we personally have been liberated from bondage and personally understand what it is to be free.
In 2020, it was actually true. In 2020, we did lose our freedom. We all lived in the narrow places of quarantines and closures and covered faces. We all suffered from so many plagues, both physical and emotional. We all witnessed the slaying not of the first born but of victims of racism, sexism, white-supremacy, anti-Semitism, queer-phobia and other fanaticisms.
This year the symbols on our Passover table take on new meaning as never before.
The salt water represents the tears that were shed for over 500,000 Americans, including some of our own loved ones, who lost their lives in 12 short months.
The maror and chazeret symbolize the bitterness that has divided our nation over politics, social justice, and civic responsibility.
The charoset reminds us of all the brick buildings that stood empty this year – schools, offices and other places of business, restaurants, theaters, concert halls and places of worship, including our own beautiful sanctuary.
The shankbone stands for the sacrifices of our doctors, nurses, healthcare and essential workers who risked their lives and the lives of their families to save and preserve ours.
The roasted egg is not just a symbol of birth and renewal, but also of the ingenuity and dedication of scientists all over the world who worked feverishly to create a new vaccine.
The karpas, our symbol of spring, represents our rekindled love and appreciation for the natural world, for the beauty of plants and animals which sustained and comforted us when we could not hug, touch, or even see each other’s faces.
And finally, the matza. The bread of affliction and freedom. The simple flat cracker that according to our rabbis, is “not puffed up” to teach us humility. Oh, how we have been humbled this year! We have finally come to understand what is really important.
We have been through more than we could have ever imagined. In just one year, there has been so much loss, so much fear, so much anguish and anger and despair and depression.
And just recently – hope. Glimmers of light. Slivers of optimism. There have been vaccines for some of us, and more on the way. We have started to entertain dreams and plans and possibilities for the future after living for months from day to day.
Tomorrow night, I will not celebrate Pesach alone, but sitting in a backyard at socially distanced tables with a few vaccinated people. It will probably be one of the most meaningful and cherished seders in my life.
Tomorrow night, I will take part in a discussion about the meaning of Pesach in 2021. Tomorrow night I will ask everyone to answer four new questions:
What have we lost?
What have we gained?
What have we learned?
What must we change?
And then I will ask everyone what their first steps will be as we gradually re-enter the world with new eyes and a new awareness of what freedom really means. Perhaps you might do the same.
Wishing you all Shabbat Shalom and a happy, healthy, meaningful Pesach,