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Coronavirus and the Seder’s fifth question

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And here it is, the fifth question: How will this year’s Seder nights be different from all other seder nights, ever?

On all other seder nights, we gathered with extended family and good friends to talk about freedom and Judaism, and debate the merits of heavy vs. fluffy matzah balls.

On this year’s seder nights … well, I’ll let you fill in your own blank.

Many people will be attending much smaller seders this year. Your downsizing may not be as drastic as the one at Kibbutz Na’an where they have cancelled their seder, Israel’s largest, which normally brings together over 1,200 participants.

Your reduction may not be as drastic but there’s still a good chance you could use some guidance, religiously, socially and emotionally. Here are some ideas.

If you’ve never held your own seder before, Chabad provides very clear advice for the novice.

  • Can I bake my own matzah and make my own wine or grape juice? Matzah is quite hard to bake at home so try to purchase some in advance. Making your own wine or grape juice, however, is an option.
  • What should I do if my Hebrew isn’t good enough? The word haggadah means “telling,” and the main purpose of the evening is to tell over the events of the Exodus. If you don’t understand Hebrew, it is perfectly acceptable to use a translation.
  • Should I still open the door for Elijah? This question should be answered after you carefully review the guidelines from your local health. However, the Chabad site continues, “I’m going to hazard a guess that as long as your door does not face your neighbour’s door and you’re keeping your distance, opening the door for Elijah should be fine.”

(Mark’s take: I presume we don’t have to maintain our social distancing from Elijah, too.)

And how do you deal with a centrepiece of the Seder, the Four Questions when there are no kids around – or if you’re all alone? The Talmud anticipated these questions centuries ago as Rabbi Binyomin Friedman of Georgia’s Congregation Ariel notes. “Our sages in the tractate Pesachim (116a) state, ‘If the son is wise, he asks his father the four questions. If the son is not capable of asking, the wife asks her husband. If the wife cannot ask her husband, the man asks himself.’”

This is not a theoretical question for Rabbi Friedman. “As my grand Pesach seder populated with children and grandchildren evaporates before my eyes, I am adjusting to my new reality. If G-d has decided that this year my wife will ask me the four questions, I will thank him that I have her to ask me and that I have the privilege to answer. We serve G-d in the circumstances that He dictates.”

Chaya Rowan-Baker, a Conservative rabbi and the spiritual leader at Congregation Ramot Zion in Jerusalem is also trying to look on the bright side. “Let’s remember that the central element of this holiday is sitting around and telling our children our story,” she says. “But all too often, we get so caught up with all the food and all the company that this part of it sometimes get lost. So this year’s seder really provides an opportunity to return to what this is really all about, and I, for one, am looking forward to a different seder, a very different seder from all others.”

But what about the loneliness? Can’t we just use technology to bridge the long distance feeling? Jan Zauzmer notes at reformjudaism.org that “Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts, and other apps can enable people to share the holiday safely and meaningfully – and many of these wondrous tools are free, like manna from heaven.”

On the other hand, Rabbi Menachem Posner writes that “As tempting as it may be, the answer is no. Shabbat and Jewish holidays are a blessed respite from all digital connectivity. This means that you have the opportunity to lead your own Seder, live and in person, for your household.”

That’s why I was surprised to learn that a group of Israeli rabbis has permitted the use of the Zoom video conferencing program at this year’s seder(s). This would enable involving elderly people who cannot be physically close to their family members due to the pandemic. The rabbis have imposed certain limitations such as the software must have been opened before the start of the holiday. (I do not expect this ruling to be accepted across the spectrum of the Orthodox Jewish world so please consult your rabbi for advice.)

If you are lucky to have young people at your seder, how do you talk to them about the crisis? Here are the questions Jordan Namerow expects to hear from The Four Children about COVID-19.

  • The Inquisitive Child asks, “Why are people getting sick?”
  • The Compassionate Child asks, “What can I do to keep myself and others healthy and safe?”
  • The Resilient Child asks, “When this crisis is over, how can we prevent it from happening again?”
  • The Worried Child asks, “What if the virus keeps spreading and never stops?”

Here’s Namerow’s advice to the Worried Child: “Talk about ways to stay socially connected, mindful, grounded, and engaged in the present moment. The Talmud teaches, ‘Do not suffer from tomorrow’s trouble. Do not worry about the problems that might arise in the future as you do not know what a day will bring.’ Reinforce the value that ‘Whoever acts from love is greater than who acts from fear.” Finally, explain that throughout history, people have faced many hardships and found ways to overcome them. That is a core message of the Passover story.”

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