Virus lock­downs threaten some Passover tra­di­tions

Times Standard (Eureka) - - FAITH - By Terry Mat­tingly Terry Mat­tingly leads GetReli­gion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Ten­nessee. He is a se­nior fel­low at the Overby Cen­ter at the Univer­sity of Mis­sis­sippi.

Passover Seders in­clude one mo­ment that is espe­cially poignant for grand­par­ents.

Early in this rit­ual meal, they look on as one or more of their grand­chil­dren sing or re­cite the “Ma Nish­tana” — the “Four Questions” that frame the lessons Is­raelites learned from their bondage in Egypt and Ex­o­dus to free­dom.

The first line echoes from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion: “Why is this night dif­fer­ent from all other nights?”

This year, Jews ev­ery­where are wrestling with the fact that, in a world wracked by the coro­n­avirus, this Passover is rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent from other Passovers.

“There’s no way to re­place hav­ing Passover with your par­ents, your grand­par­ents, your friends and loved ones,” said Rabbi Yaa­cov Behrman, founder of the Jewish Fu­ture Al­liance and di­rec­tor of Op­er­a­tion Sur­vival, a drug abuse preven­tion pro­gram in the Crown Heights neigh­bor­hood of Brook­lyn.

“A grand­mother looks for­ward to see­ing her grand­chil­dren at the Seder. Fa­thers and moth­ers look for­ward to see­ing their fam­i­lies around that ta­ble. … There’s no way to ig­nore the pain of what is hap­pen­ing this year.”

Prayers and sym­bols de­scrib­ing suf­fer­ing and lib­er­a­tion are at the heart of Hag­gadah (He­brew for “telling”) texts that guide the Seder meal and in­ter­pret the eight-day Passover sea­son, which be­gan this year at sun­down on April 8.

Why is matzo the only bread at Passover? Be­cause the Is­raelites didn’t have time to bake leav­ened bread as they fled Egypt. Why dip bit­ter herbs into chopped ap­ples, dates, nuts and wine? Be­cause this paste re­sem­bles the clay He­brew slaves used to make bricks. Why dip pars­ley into salt­wa­ter? This rep­re­sents new life, mixed with tears.

One rit­ual will have special mean­ing this year, as the leader of the Seder prays: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the uni­verse, who has sanc­ti­fied us with His com­mand­ments, and com­manded us con­cern­ing the wash­ing of the hands.”

Some sec­u­lar and re­li­gious Jews are cre­at­ing digital win­dows from one ta­ble to another, fol­low­ing how-to guides for “on­line Seders” us­ing Zoom and sim­i­lar video pro­grams. Some Con­ser­va­tive and even Ortho­dox lead­ers have backed this strat­egy, espe­cially if —as one group of rab­bis said — the technology is “ac­cessed in a way that does not in­volve di­rect in­ter­ac­tion,” such as voice-com­mand soft­ware to con­trol com­put­ers or smart­phones.

But the Chief Rab­binate of Is­rael ruled that the use of these de­vices is for­bid­den on re­li­gious Jewish hol­i­days. The rab­bis added: “The lone­li­ness is painful, and we must re­spond to it, per­haps even with a video­con­fer­ence on the hol­i­day be­fore it be­gins, but not by des­e­crat­ing the hol­i­day, which is only per­mit­ted in cases of ‘pikuach ne­fesh’ (to save a life).”

Shel­ter-in-place or­ders have also made it im­pos­si­ble for Jews to fol­low the tra­di­tion of invit­ing less­for­tu­nate guests to Seders, in­clud­ing those liv­ing alone, said Behrman, who is part of the Ortho­dox Chabad-Lubav­itch move­ment.

“We can­not, of course, open our doors right now and give away food. But this made it im­por­tant to take food to oth­ers be­fore our Seders and we can keep do­ing that af­ter­wards. … We have taken boxes of es­sen­tial Seder foods to peo­ple who are alone or may not have been able to get out to buy these things on their own.”

The bot­tom line: Coro­n­avirus lock­downs will force many Jews, espe­cially the el­derly, to do some­thing they would oth­er­wise find un­think­able — spend Passover alone.

In one on­line Chabad fo­rum, an anony­mous Aus­tralian writer noted: “Yes, this year’s Pe­sach will be dif­fer­ent. … Know­ing that many griev­ing fam­i­lies will spend Pe­sach with­out their loved ones. Know­ing that these times are un­cer­tain and un­pre­dictable. But still do­ing what needs to be done and mak­ing a Pe­sach as kosher and en­joy­able as can be un­der the cir­cum­stances is hard. Keep­ing in mind that matzo is known as the bread of faith and the bread of heal­ing.”

Seder tra­di­tions have much to of­fer be­liev­ers in troubled times, stressed Behrman.

“These prayers are what unite us, right now and through many gen­er­a­tions. We say these prayers and these prayers unite us. We eat the same matzo, and that unites us. We need to be united in ev­ery way that we can right now. … The times we are liv­ing in will bring these prayers alive while we re­flect on what is hap­pen­ing all around us.”

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