Tomorrow night, around festive seder tables, we will all ask together: “Ma nishtana…?—Why is this night different from all other nights?”
This question—one we recite year after year and often is associated with young children’s excitement at singing their first solo in front of family and friends—will have an entirely new meaning this year. Why is this seder so different from all previous seders? Why are so few gathered around the table? Where are the children, grandchildren, friends, and relatives we were so looking forward to seeing here tonight?
This night is different from all other Pesachs in so many ways—ways that are beyond anyone’s imagination. Pesach 2020 is the first holiday in the history of the Jewish people in which Jews will not welcome a pilgrimage festival in synagogues, where worshipers traditionally stand together, shoulder-to-shoulder, greeting one another with “chag sameach,” and return home with the light of community shining onto the festivity of families celebrating together.
For the first time in Jewish history, only a few synagogues worldwide will be open for services. These are the “Corona hotel” synagogues, located in hotels around the country that are hosting COVID-19-diagnosed patients that can do without hospital treatment. All other synagogues, in Israel and across the Jewish world, will remain sealed for the fourth week in a row.
It’s sad to see synagogues closed on any night, but all the more so on Pesach. A very sad sight.
It’s even sadder to know that couples, individuals, and families will sit alone at the Pesach seder table—separated from friends, extended family, and others with whom they otherwise would recite the Haggadah, drink four cups of wine, and enjoy crispy mahtzot, while looking across the room with joy and happiness. Not this year.
It’s sad, too, to see so many soldiers and police officers patrolling the streets of ultra-Orthodox communities, forcing people to stay indoors while the disease, in these neighborhoods more than others, raises its head, take casualties, and leaves wounded towns behind.
As in Jewish communities all over the world, many in Israel will join family seders via Zoom. Others will recite the Haggadah together with neighbors while standing on balconies and in front yards, literally inviting the entire neighborhood to join the song. Note to note, sound to sound, April’s spring winds will carry the lyrics of the Haggadah across the country—and beyond. I can almost hear it now: A loud voice made up of different melodies and versions, all sung together, pushing away the cruelness of the pandemic. A community singing together against a disease forcing us to stay apart.
The largest seder in history will be a televised one. Thousands of people in Israel and beyond will join with others, including strangers, to become fellow seder companions.
We are in this together. From China to Italy, Spain to Australia, Israel to North America, we are united in our efforts to defeat the virus, an unwelcome intruder in our lives.
Ma nishtana? This year, everything is different.
Tomorrow, the 14th of Nisan, we will also commemorate the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. This Jewish resistance, comprising young Socialists, Communists, and Zionists, arose on the first night of Passover in 1943 to oppose the Nazis’ efforts to transport the ghetto population to the Treblinka extermination camp. Although poorly armed, the young fighters held out for almost a month before German troops crushed them. To avoid capture, Mordechai Anielewicz, the 24-year-old commander of the uprising, along with several of his comrades, took poison. Anielewicz departed the world so young, yet left behind so much. He taught us, the generations that have come since, the fruit of Jewish resilience, heroism, determination, and pride.
The Warsaw Ghetto fighters fought against the worst of all, against the beast of beasts, against pure, pure evil. They may not have succeeded in saving the lives of those in the ghetto, but they certainly redeemed their spirit and granted us with their legacy—of which we can be extremely proud.
Pesach, the holiday of freedom. Yet, we aren’t free to walk around or be with others. Pesach, the holiday of spring. Yet we can’t enjoy nature’s beauty together. Nonetheless, we have our health, we have the technology, and we have one another. We are in this together, and together— when the time is right—we shall be free to enjoy nature’s beauty once again.
Following Pesach, the Jewish world will celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. We pray that by then we will have resumed our lives—making it possible for us, once again, to celebrate together, hug family and friends, go out, rejoice, be human, live.
Wherever you will be tomorrow night—alone or joined by one or more family members—may you have a meaningful seder, and together with family and friends, and in good health, may we all sing with joy and hope: L’shana HaBaah B’Yerushalayim. Next year in Jerusalem!
Wishing you a happy and healthy Pesach!
Leah Garber, Vice President, Center for Israel Engagement