Moses (played by Charlton Heston) during the first Passover night in Cecile B. DeMille's 1956 film "The Ten Commandments."
Moses (played by Charlton Heston) during the first Passover night in Cecile B. DeMille's 1956 film "The Ten Commandments."

Why this year’s seder will be similar to the very first seder

In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as having personally made the exodus from Egypt.
— Passover haggadah

This is what we are asked to do on the eve of Passover. And we do try to see it, year after year, generation after generation: we emphasize it; we imagine it; we discuss it; some of us even try to discuss how we would feel if we were there. Some seders include dressing as our ancestors would have dressed, girded loins, a walking staff in our hand and with a parcel slung over our shoulder.

Well, this Passover we have a unique opportunity to come as close as one possibly can to that very first Passover eve experience, some 3,300 to 3,500 years ago.

Then, too, it was a time of plague. Then, too, each family huddled in its own home, anxiously awaiting the unknown. Then, too, the meal was limited: the roasted lamb, whose blood had been smeared on the doorposts of our homes, some bitter herbs and the bread baked without yeast, without rising. But who had an appetite … It was an unusual evening, so much so that the children in the household felt compelled to question the goings on: Why is tonight so different? What’s going on here? And everyone was tense and anxious: will the plague get us, as well, or will it pass over us?

Today, people are understandably worried about Passover on several different levels. People can’t travel, so how will everyone get here and what kind of seder will it be? How will we make all the traditional food we usually have and enjoy and what kind of seder will it be? I always go to the family seder and I’ve never made one myself, so what kind of seder will it be?

And in a heart-wrenching confession in a recent JTA article, an immunocompromised woman recovering from a recent kidney transplant said, “I’m concerned that if things are the way they are right now … I don’t know that I could justify taking the risk of being at a Pesach seder. It’s really hard to say that as a Jew.”

So what kind of seder will it be this year?

Very much like the very first one!

So to those who will be conducting a seder for the first — and unexpected! — time, I say open the haggadah now and own your seder!

As far as food is concerned, we may indeed not be able to have all of our traditional and favorite dishes. And we will certainly not be able to have all who were to be with us here, along with the special foods for which they were famous in our family.

But there is so much we can do: Get the recipes and try your hand at making them. Who knows, some day your way of making tzimmes (sweet carrots) will be “Grandma’s original recipe” that everyone simply cannot do without on Pesach. And all because you had no honey in the lockdown days and decided to use maple syrup!

In the haggadah, there is a segment that we read, attributed to Rabban Gamliel (1st-2nd century C.E.): “One who has not discussed these three things is not considered to have fulfilled the obligation of Pesach: a) Pesach (the paschal lamb), b) matzah (the unleavened bread) and c) maror (the bitter herbs).”

These are not just symbols of a) God having passed over our people during the plague of the firstborn; b) the fact that we were taken out of Egypt quickly to freedom, with no time even to let bread rise; c) the bitterness of our ancestors’ slavery and persecution in Egypt. These three symbolic items are the exact items we were commanded to eat on that final, anxious night in Egypt:

“And they shall eat [the lamb] in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; with bitter herbs they shall eat it” (Exodus 12:8).

This is the Passover food. All the rest is 3,500 years of joyous culinary development and the development of additional traditions. It’s great, it’s delicious. It adds depth and tastiness to Pesach, but it does not make Pesach.

More than the nourishment of food, look to the nourishment of content.

“And you shall tell of this to your children” is the directive for this holiday. Even if we are not the age of children, we need to hear and to tell ourselves the story year after year. As we grow in age and experience, we develop and change our ability to comprehend, our perspective, the depth of our perceptions.

Look through different haggadahs and prepare midrash and other commentary for this year’s seder. Encourage those who are with you and will be at your seder to do the same. Do you have an interesting thought or idea? Bring it up for discussion. Discussing Pesach is an integral part of the seder, often forgotten in the mad rush to finish up already and eat … Do all this and your seder is guaranteed to provide both food to eat and food for thought!

For example, looking at the three items we just mentioned — Pesach, matzah, maror — it might seem as if they are in the wrong order. Shouldn’t matzah, which symbolizes freedom, come after maror, which symbolizes the bitterness of slavery?

The answer is that they are exactly in the correct order, and the Rabbis explain: We tend to adjust to long-term situations in which we find ourselves, trying to make the best of things, even finding ways to get “comfortable” in terrible conditions. It is only once one has become free that one can look back and actually realize just how bad and bitter life was. Therefore, matzah comes before maror.

I’d like to take a moment to address the issue of the woman who recently had a kidney transplant and so is now immunocompromised. For her to join others at a seder, in her condition and in our times, may well mean the most serious of consequences. In Judaism, this woman is actually forbidden to participate in any seder that includes others. She may, of course, hold her own seder, ask the Mah nishtana (four questions) aloud by herself and even hide the afikomen and negotiate with herself for a fine present in exchange for returning it before midnight!

The basis for forbidding her to participate is the clear imperative: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death … therefore choose life that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed” (Deuteronomy 30:19). And this falls directly within the category of Pikuach Nefesh — the saving of life. For anything in this category almost all laws are suspended.

And lastly, another difficult aspect of this year’s unique seder is the isolation: no big, warm family gatherings from all over, no friends getting together to celebrate the most popular holiday in the Jewish world. Many of us will be alone.

To address this, let me refer to the popular song in the haggadah, “Dayenu” (it would have been enough). Among the verses we find:

If He had led us to Mt. Sinai

And not given us the Torah — Dayenu!

What?! That can’t be right! What were the Rabbis thinking?!

But our Rabbis had this to say about this stanza:

When God took the Children of Israel out of Egypt and led them through the desert, we read: “and they traveled from … and they camped at …” in the plural, over and over as they traveled in the desert. But when the Children of Israel reached Mount Sinai, it says: “And Israel camped (singular!) there vis-à-vis the mountain” (Exodus 19:2).

Why all of a sudden does the description go from the plural “Vayis’u, they traveled” and “Vayachanu, they camped” to the singular “Vayichan, and Israel camped?”

Rashi (1040 to 1105 C.E.), one of the greatest Torah commentators, says: “As one man with one heart! — K’ish echad im lev echad!” Meaning that, as opposed to the various bickering, arguments, etc. that were part and parcel of life in the desert, the Children of Israel came to Sinai so united, so together, as one man with one heart and that this kind of unity was comparable even to the giving of the Torah. Had this unity remained, all the do’s and don’ts of the Torah would have automatically and naturally become a part of life, and so — it would most certainly have been enough — Dayenu!

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (18th-19th century, founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement), said that the People of Israel are one soul, just separated into many bodies. So we are never really alone. We are part of a single, wonderful, eternal soul.

Not one of us will be alone at this year’s unique seder. Because whenever one of us blesses, another one of us will always answer “amen” — even from a different continent.

When we sing the stanzas of “Dayenu,” all over the world Jewish brethren will join us in the chorus: “Day dayenu, dayenu da-ye-nu!”

And when Jews everywhere sing “L’shana haba’a biYerushalayim — Next year in Jerusalem,” you can be certain that those of us who are already here will be here to welcome you home next Pesach!

May this year’s unique Pesach connect us more clearly and deeply to its beginnings, may we make our seders the best ever and may we be privileged to celebrate the seder next year — together!

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Nily Shiryon
Nily Shiryon

Nily Shiryon is an Israeli psychologist and biblical scholar who lives in Ra'anana, Israel. She received her undergraduate and Ph.D. degrees in the Bay Area, and spent years here as a visiting scholar.