This night that is different from all other nights is going to be even more different this year.
Truth is, it’s different in different ways every year. People who sat at the table one year are not there the next. This is so for multiple reasons, ranging from loved ones having passed away – annual events a stark reminder of this – but also because travels, changed circumstances or varied seder configurations have taken people to another table in another home.
A few days out, and I’m feeling the loss and difference already. No extensive shopping for ingredients, cooking on a grand scale, discussions about how to configure the room… Come Wednesday evening, I’ll miss the house filling with the faces and voices that constitute this particular yearly gathering.
Add this to the worries about health – our own, our loved ones, our community, city, country and world – and it’s feeling like a heavy Pesach. We are all in the narrow and restricted place that is intimated by the Hebrew word for Egypt, ‘Mitzrayim’. While our choices and opportunities at the moment cannot be compared to the life of a captive slave, they are nevertheless severely curtailed and offer little of the ease with which we usually go about our lives.
Nevertheless, as the Good Book says (to quote Tevye) or in this case, a wise Jewish proverb says, ‘Worries go down better with soup than without’, let’s make our soup and get on with it. Here’s how to make Pesach 2020 one to remember for the good things and the added opportunities it brings.
Basically, with time on our hands, being at home (for some alone, for many with at least one other person or whole families), and the potential for virtually Zooming in guests, we can shift our focus from the first and maybe second-night seder as one of the high points of the year, to embrace the week-long aspect of the holiday.
Why not borrow from Chanukah and add a little light each night by theming the seven (or eight) nights and delving a little deeper into the richness of the festival and exploring its many angles, made so easy for us through the richness of resources just a click away.
Pre-Pesach: If ever there were a year to clean out every drawer and shelf of your fridge and kitchen (and the rest of the house and the car), it’s this year. Better get started if you haven’t yet, as it takes a while! Chametz can be ‘sold’ or stored far away from reach. The night before Pesach, engage in ‘Bedikat chametz’, a ritual involving a candle or torch, a feather and a shovel (wooden spatula traditionally), and hunt for any last crumbs to be discarded or burnt before Pesach arrives. A kabbalistic tradition involves hiding ten pieces of chametz around the house and hunting for them. A perfect family activity, particularly if you have children looking for a variation of hide n’ seek.
First night: Let’s make this the classic seder, whatever that means in your family and however it looks in the COVID 19 era. Sedarim should always be lively, interactive and inventive, taking on the distinctive shape and momentum of the guests and context of time and place. This year, with our circumstances so different, there may be even more opportunities for creativity and reflection. For those families for whom virtual seder and Zooming are options, plan for the technical details so it goes as smoothly as possible, and think in advance about how to involve ‘guests’ in different places. Ensure highlights remain just so – singing the MaNishtanah, tasting the maror as one, the delight of finding the afikoman. Ensure you invite someone who may be alone to join you.
An intimate seder allows for a variety of haggadot and increased participation on the part of those at the table. Embrace this! If you’re Zooming and are looking to all be using the same haggadah, there are many to be found online. But here’s a shameless plug for The Australian Haggadah, published by Stand Up (I’m a proud board member and contributor to the haggadah). Here you’ll find beautiful layout and illustration, accompanied by reflections on social justice in an Australian context. Onetable has created readings and texts for those who may be having a seder alone.
Second night: For many, this is a repeat of the traditional first night, but with a different configuration of guests and possibly different activities and reflections. If you want to start getting creative, Pardes has some excellent interactive ideas, as does TBl. Kveller haggadah is designed for curious kids (and grown ups) and JOFA offers a feminist perspective.
Third night: Now that we have got the first and second nights out of the way, we can start to get more creative and embrace the full potential of the week-long festival. It’s also Shabbat by now, so what better way to focus on the themes of freedom, rest and mindful inaction. You may like to explore what we are slaves to in our workaday, non-COVID lives. Is it money? Ambition? Popularity?
Fourth night: Shavuah tov! A new week is beginning and we are conscious of entering a new moment in time with optimism and good spirit. Depending on how many meals you ate over Shabbat, you might not want a major meal. But being Saturday night, tonight is a good night for light-hearted Pesach activities – games (Pesach celebrity head, themed quiz, make some up), comedy seder, maybe even a viewing of Prince of Egypt.
Fifth night: Beyond anyone else, we are commanded to love the stranger in our midst, for we were strangers in a strange land. HIAS challenges us ‘to resist the urge to turn inward and, instead, turn outward and remember the 70 million displaced people around the world who are made that much more vulnerable in this moment.’ The HIAS Haggadah facilitiates a deeper exploration of the global refugee crisis.
Sixth night: You might like a break from the Haggadah format this evening. Maybe focus your Pesach activities during the day. Make an effort to try out some Pesach recipes, possibly unusual or exotic ones. Even if you can’t go far, plan a matzah picnic for lunch or dinner – a classic Pesach favourite. Spread a blanket in your garden, on the floor, wherever and eat, play games, roam free…
Seventh night: For some, this will be the last night, so make an effort to explore the Haggadah library and choose a Haggadah on a theme of interest – hunger, feminist, secular, LGBT, earth justice colouring-book! Engage those around you in person or virtually in your chosen theme. Guests could choose a different theme and allocate each person a few minutes to share ideas and teachings about Pesach on their chosen topic. You could theme your seder plate accordingly, with new and compelling symbols.
If this is your last night, be sure to round off the evening on a hopeful note. Pesach is our festival of redemption, in which we express our longing for a future world rid of oppression and injustice, based and evidenced on the redemption we celebrate through Pesach. ‘This too shall pass’, tomorrow will be better than today, we have undergone difficult times before but we journey on, step by step. May our present be our past, this time next year.
Eighth night: Same same, but different. Choose a different theme and Haggadah from that you chose on night seven and add the hopeful elements, outlined above.
Pesach as never before! But possibly the start of a whole new embrace. L’Shana haba’ah b’Yerushalayim – travel, quarantine and vaccine permitting!
* Illustration by Talia Lipshut, The New Australian Haggadah, Stand Up, 2016. Link above.