Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris – 8 April 2020
?מה נשתנה הלילה הזה מכל הלילות
Why is tonight different from all other nights?
This question, more than all the others, is perhaps the most famous line in the whole of our Haggadah. And yet most years it is a little redundant, slightly facile even, intended only for the very youngest of children present who are able to understand it. For most seder nights are not all that different from every other seder night we can remember.
True, I miss seder nights of my childhood – thirty or more people crowded around tables over at least two rooms in my grandparents’ house in Oklahoma City. There would be my grandparents; my aunts and uncles and cousins alongside our family; more distant cousins, who I was never entirely sure how they were related; and very often Israeli air force servicemen, who regularly came for exchanges at a nearby air force base. Sometimes there were other visitors, people my grandfather had known as a child growing up in British mandate Palestine or their children and people simply passing through Oklahoma City who somehow found themselves with an invitation to the Kahn family seder. I remember spending days gutting, skinning, and deboning carp with my grandmother, watching her grind the flesh, cooking it with spices, and carefully refilling the fish skins with this concoction. Real gefilte fish that I have never had the like of since. And, the most magical part of sitting in the small room to the side of the main room with my cousins – staring at the 1950s wallpaper that my grandparents had miraculously sourced, a map of the Israelites journey through Egypt. It was like having a live action replay of the exodus from Egypt on the walls surrounding us.
So, no, my more recent seders of the past thirty years or more since my grandparents’ passing is nothing like the ones of my childhood, but they have been predictable. For most of the past twenty years at least now, I have spent them with my husband and his extended family, debating about which haggadah to use and teaching a new generation of my children and their cousins how to answer that famous question above.
But this year, this seder night, really will, for almost all of us, be very different to anyone we have ever known. Seder night in lockdown or quarantine or shelter in place or whatever your country chooses to call it will not be like every other seder night. For those of us in the progressive Jewish world, it will likely involve Zoom or Skype or WhatsApp or some other online platform we hardly knew existed until three weeks ago. It will involve muting and unmuting, seeing our extended families in boxes on a screen, debating whether we can all sing together without too much painful sound distortion, and complex negotiations about how long the meal needs to last for and whether we stay online for it or not.
On seder night it will be precisely three weeks since my family went into quarantine when I began to run a fever. Since then we have all had some form of illness – without proper testing we can only presume it to be Covid 19 without knowing for sure. For a time I wanted to put sign above our front door that read ‘plague house’. For a time, I thought that we ought to have smeared the blood of a lamb above the lintel of our front door. Perhaps then we would not have been struck down with this modern plague. But we have come out the other side, if not unscathed, then at least healing – no hospital visits, no long term consequences thus far, by all accounts then part of the 80% for who the disease is mild to moderate.
But this seder night I will be acutely aware of the families for whom Zoom or Skype are not the major differences between this seder night and previous ones. I will be thinking of the numerous families, especially in the Jewish community, who will be missing loved ones who have passed away of Covid 19. Of grandparents especially who are missing this year for the first time. Of families for whom Zoom can never bring them back together.
And when we ask ‘why is this night different from all other nights’, it will be because this plague has ruptured our lives irrevocably. Because for the first time in the contemporary, Western developed world that most Jews worldwide inhabit, we actually know what a plague feels like. When I spill my droplets of wine for each plague this year, I will genuinely understand something of the pain that the biblical plagues caused for many Egyptians, who had no control over the whims of Pharaoh.
My personal home is recovering, but the world is still in the throes of the only true pandemic I have ever known, ever lived through, that has effected both myself, my family, and my wider community in ways that I could not have dreamt of only six months ago. We have already lost much and we will potentially lose more. Our synagogues, our movements, the Leo Baeck College that I am honoured to lead, alongside so many other of our communal organisations will all come under the economic that follow in the wake of this virus.
But this Pesach I will allow myself to be comforted by the words of the Song of Songs, our Megilah reading for the festival:
שִׂימֵ֨נִי כַֽחוֹתָ֜ם עַל־לִבֶּ֗ךָ כַּֽחוֹתָם֙ עַל־זְרוֹעֶ֔ךָ כִּֽי־עַזָּ֤ה כַמָּ֙וֶת֙ אַהֲבָ֔ה קָשָׁ֥ה כִשְׁא֖וֹל קִנְאָ֑ה רְשָׁפֶ֕יהָ רִשְׁפֵּ֕י אֵ֖שׁ שַׁלְהֶ֥בֶתְיָֽה׃
Let me be a seal upon your heart, like the seal upon your hand, for love is fierce as death, passion is as hard as Sheol; its darts are darts of fire, a blazing flame. [Song 8: 6]
May this Pesach our love for each and our communities be fiercer than death, may our passions be harder than Sheol; may we be a seal upon each other’s hearts and hands that we come out of this time blazing with love and passion for a world renewed.
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