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Why this night is different

Modern seders have been family gatherings. This year,

Modern seders have been family gatherings. This year, because of the coronavirus, they will be different: isolated, lonely affairs. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/Maglara

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Tonight, Jews around the world will sit at their seder tables and observe Passover. We will recite the Hagaddah, the telling, of the enslavement and liberation of Jews in ancient Egypt. Perhaps the most recognizable portion of the Hagaddah is the “Four Questions”: Why is this night different from all others?”

This year, as pandemic takes and changes lives, the question sounds like an ironic joke rather than a familiar refrain.

The seder, on Wednesday night, is commanded in the Book of Exodus and has probably been conducted since the fifth century BCE.  Exodus instructs Jews to teach our children about our slavery and salvation. Over millennia, the rituals and traditions have been changed, modernized, adapted to circumstances.

Tonight, global pandemic compels us to adapt again.

Modern seders have been family gatherings. On this night they will be different: isolated, lonely affairs. Or, perhaps, there will be Skype seders, Zoom seders, FaceTime seders.

Tonight, the proscribed ritual that commences the Seder — the washing of the hands — is a commandment from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

Tonight, the ten plagues (blood, frogs, lice, flies, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the killing of the first born children) aren’t implausible but relatable. This year, too many of us know of someone taken — if not by an Angel of death than by a biological agent of death.

Tonight, we will combine a dab of sweet charoseth — fruit, nuts, red wine — with a dab of stinging horseradish between two pieces of matzoh. We will eat it to remind ourselves of the bittersweet travails of Jews.

Tonight, we will read of the pharaoh, believed by many scholars to be Ramses II. The cruel and vengeful leader consumed with power and greed; who built great walls and pyramids in garrison cities, using the labor of Jewish immigrants. And, perhaps be reminded of others in a contemporary context.

Yes, tonight will be different. But Jews have managed to tell and retell the Passover story through even more deathly times. They gathered for seders during the Inquisition, expulsions, crusades, pogroms. They told it in the Warsaw Ghetto. The torn fragments of a Hagaddah even survived the Chelmno death camp in Poland. 

We have survived these things because of our connections — to each other and to our shared great and bitter history. Tonight, much of that communal connection will feel frail. No clanking of spoons in soup bowls, no family arguments, no horribly out of pitch singing of “dayanu.”

But, in our homes, in smaller settings, this year will remind us of two fundamental lessons of the Hagaddah.

The first lesson are the very first words of the hagaddah: “All who are hungry, come and eat. All who are needy come and celebrate.” In other words, no matter where or how we gather, there are those who’s afflictions are worse than our own. In crowded hospitals, separated in nursing homes from their families.

Second, that we share a history of hope. When the whips have lashed at our flesh in Egypt, when the flames burned in the camps, we knew there would be a redemption. Why else would that Hagaddah be brought to Chelmno? Somewhere there is a Moses to lead us through the wilderness of despair (In this case, the nurses and doctors who heal us; the scientists who will soon cure us.)

Those two values have sustained Jews through history.

Which makes tonight’s seder not all that different at all.

Steve Israel, a former Democratic congressman from Huntington, heads the Cornell University Institute of Politics and Global Affairs.

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