For the past two years, our Passover seders have been dramatically disrupted. We almost became accustomed to swapping our full tables for Zoom screens. It is with both joy and trepidation that we find ourselves possibly emerging out of the Egypt of COVID-19 to celebrate the seder this year in a way that resembles seders of the past. And while I’m incredibly excited to sit once again with extended family and friends, I’m also hoping we don’t abandon what we have learned in this period of ritual innovation.
This Shabbat has a special name, Shabbat Hachodesh, which celebrates the beginning of the Hebrew month of Nisan. The word chodesh comes from the root chadash, or new. This Shabbat reminds us that we are two weeks from the most observed Jewish holiday. We clear away the old to make room for the new.
Ultimately, Passover is all about liberation — not only from Egyptian bondage, but from our fixed ways of doing Jewish. It’s a reminder that while traditions can be powerful, they can also be stifling.
Almost 2,000 years ago, the rough structure of our current seder ritual grew out of the painful disruption of the destruction of the Second Temple and the shattered structures of Judaism as we had known it. No more Temple, no more sacrifices. The priests were no longer in charge. Passover became primarily a home-centered ritual event, with each family leading their own ritual drama. Jewish life was radically transformed, making the experience of the holiday richer and far more accessible to a wider swath of our people.
Over the past two years, one could sense an intense hunger for the uplift of the annual telling of our collective journey from slavery to freedom. From our isolation and fear, we found new ways to gather and new inspiration in the ancient story. During the darkest days of the pandemic, there was hardly a house that the angel of death passed over. But through it all, we continued to channel the strength of our ancestors to endure these plague-ridden years.
Many of us included more people in our virtual seders than we could have fit into our homes. And more people wanted to join us than ever before. As we return to gatherings in physical space, I wonder: Will all the guests we welcomed in the past two years find their way to welcoming tables this year?
More people felt empowered to add symbols and new readings to keep the ritual relevant. What will we add this year to provoke awareness and change? When we read in the Haggadah that arami oved avi — our ancestors were refugees — I suspect many will highlight the courage of the modern-day Jewish liberator named Zelensky. Should we not ask as well why our Jewish community responded quickly to Ukrainian Jewish refugees yet have long overlooked the plight of our other siblings in an unstable and perilous Ethiopia? Can we hold on to the relevance of the dry, flat matzah that reminds us of the oppression of our ancestors as well as those in our communities who still face poverty, racism, sexism, transphobia, ableism, and other forms of oppression? Will the bitter herbs truly awaken empathy for those who suffer today?
And can the seder help us develop new muscles to find strength in our community’s God-given diversity? The Haggadah includes a passage about five rabbis who celebrated the holiday together in ancient Israel. They were a diverse bunch: Rabbi Eliezer, a brilliant elder who held views all other sages rejected; Rabbi Joshua, a poor man whose understanding of salvation included righteous non-Jews; Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, a young sage who challenged the elitism of his era’s academic hierarchy; Rabbi Akiva, the late-blooming scholar who staunchly supported Bar Kochba’s armed revolt against Rome; and Rabbi Tarfon, Rabbi Akiva’s friend but also his sparring partner over matters of law.
Do we have the vision to make our gatherings even more diverse than the rabbis’ table? Can we come together not just with those who think like we do, but also with those who don’t? Can we anchor divisive debates in a foundation of connectedness and mutual responsibility? Can we debate with passion, respect and even humility?
And will our gatherings include individuals who resemble the Haggadah’s four children: the wise, wicked, simple and the one who isn’t able to ask a question? Indeed, aren’t we all a combination of these four qualities? But most importantly, do we simply indulge in asking the four questions at the seder but not the more challenging ones about the efficacy and structures of Jewish life?
Early on in the seder we exclaim, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” This includes not just hunger of the stomach, but of the mind and the soul as well — of those who are hungry for an enlightened faith, a faith that requires dissent and spiritual empathy, and which eschews claims to exclusive divine truth in favor of courageous acts against intolerance and bigotry.
Our seder ritual should continue to be an act of disruption. It should transform us so we leave our tables renewed and ready to lead more engaged and creative Jewish lives. And if we make room for serious, respectful debates about the most challenging issues of our day, then the seder can serve as a portal to those who are hungry for a Judaism of justice and hope to find their way home.
This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on April 2, 2022. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here.