Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Day 19 of Nat'l Emergency: Mah Nishtanah

“Mah nishtanah halielah hazeh mikol haleilot?”

Why is this night different from all other nights?

As they have for decades if not centuries before each seder, briskets will simmer awaiting the conclusion of the first part of the Passover story related in the haggadah. Matzo balls will swim in chicken soup. Horseradish will sit next to slices of gefilte fish. Wine cups await to be filled four times over.

The sweet voice of a grandchild singing the “Mah nishtanah”—what is different—should be lilting through my home next Wednesday, April 8, the eve of the first day of Passover. One of the youngest at the table would recite the Four Questions that distinguish the evening. It is how Jews have marked the seder for generation after generation, for millennia. But not so this year. 

The Angel of Death has upended tradition. Indiscriminate fear of the novel coronavirus will keep families apart. Our children and their families live in Massachusetts and Nebraska. Coming home for the holiday does not qualify as essential travel during a pandemic. Better to seder-in-place than risk contamination on the trip to Westchester from their homes.

Envy is a vice frowned upon by God. But I do envy my friends with year-round access to children and grandchildren who live nearby. Hugs and kisses are not meant to be limited to holiday visits and family vacations. Their absence at the seder table is all the more painful when catastrophic events prevent physical togetherness.

We will Zoom the Four Questions and the rest of our seder liturgy. It is better than nothing. We will see and hear them but won’t be able to touch our legacies. We will miss their frantic search for the hidden pieces of matzo, the afikoman, required to be eaten to conclude the seder banquet, and the squeal of joy when it is discovered. Perhaps we will have each family hide an afikoman in their own homes. Again, better than nothing.

Jews can find humor in almost everything, even life threatening, tradition-busting situations. Coronavirus is no exception. Making the rounds on the Internet—“Biblical Irony: Passover Seder may be delayed by a plague.” Of course, comedy is no match for reality. “Thousands of locusts swarm over Israel, Egypt — just in time for Passover,” headlined The Daily News on March 6. 

Growing up in Brooklyn my parents’ seder attracted 25-40 celebrants depending on how many guests they invited to augment the 18 in our immediate family of aunts, uncles and cousins. Led by my father and his brother, the seder was a raucous affair. Reading from the Maxwell House haggadah, the brothers would drone on in an Eastern European trope that befuddled my brother, sister and me and anyone else who tried to follow along in Hebrew (no English to be heard except for the chattering among my mother and her three sisters which prompted my father’s repeated unsuccessful appeals for them to be quiet). 

The seder back in the 1950s and 1960s was a time of family ingathering. Everyone lived in the New York Metro. By the time my wife and I took over seder chores some 30 years ago, family togetherness had dissolved. My sister had moved to Los Angeles. Her family stays there for Passover. My brother’s family in Maryland kept coming north until about 10 years ago. 

Our seder ritual has become more universal. Over the years, aside from incorporating English, themes covering the emancipation of Russian and Ethiopian Jews as well as the treatment of refugees from all zones of conflict have become integral parts of the haggadah we have fashioned. 

In an ironic way, conducting a virtual seder via Zoom reinforces a central theme of the seder to be kind to the stranger among us. It took Zoom founder Eric Yuan nine attempts to earn a visa to emigrate from China 23 years ago. He spoke little English. He might not qualify for a visa under the current, more restrictive, admission standards. Today, Yuan is a successful technology entrepreneur worth an estimated $3 billion.

As we peer into the Zoom-enabled camera of our computers, tablets or smart phones we must remind ourselves that the Torah admonishes us no fewer than 36 times to treat the stranger fairly because we, our ancestors, were strangers in Egypt. Not slaves. Strangers.

Passover teaches us how ephemeral the status of our existence might be. Originally invited by Pharaoh to live as guests in Goshen in Egypt, the Israelites were considered dangerous aliens by a successor. Though God smote the ensuing Pharaoh and his subjects for enslaving the Israelites, he commanded the former slaves to welcome the stranger, to treat him “as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. “  

It is a lesson to be imparted from generation to generation, in person and, this year, virtually.