When people sit down for the first seder, on Friday, April 15, it will mark the third straight year that Passover will be observed under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.
Two years ago, as lockdowns and restrictions were being implemented, our seders were held in mostly virtual settings – friends and relatives outside of the household had to settle for online participation via Zoom or another platform. We were barely a month into the pandemic, and the future looked bleak and uncertain.
Last year, with vaccines starting to be made available, optimism was on the rise and more people were able to welcome their loved ones to their seder tables.
This year, with restrictions significantly reduced, including indoor mask-wearing, our seders figure to approach normalcy, but don’t kid yourselves: we won’t be able to rejoice as we did in the pre-pandemic “good old days,” for two main reasons.
The first reason is that while COVID-19 may be a reduced threat for now, it’s not going away anytime soon – and it may never completely disappear. The disease has claimed more than 6 million lives worldwide, including about 1 million in the United States.
Although we should be optimistic about the future, valid concerns are tempering our good feelings. For one thing, it didn’t take long for the health experts to depress us anew by talking about the likelihood of new variants coming to the United States, which means that every time we sneeze, or have the sniffles or a scratchy throat, we’ll worry that we might have COVID.
Such nonstop warnings are why it’s clear that two years into the pandemic, it might be time to concede that the “normal” we knew BCE – Before the COVID Era – might never return.
The second reason is that the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with its carnage, destruction, deaths and millions of refugees, has made it clear that the main lesson of Pesach – the importance of standing up to brutal dictators who have taken away our freedoms – is one that we must never forget.
The images coming out of Ukraine, which are eerily reminiscent of the scenes from Europe after the Nazis launched their blitz in September 1939, should serve as ample warning of the consequences of not stopping a tyrant’s desire for dominance over neighboring countries.
That’s why, as we cope with those overwhelming issues, I’m proposing, for the second straight year, a change in how we observe the seder rituals. Last year, I offered four COVID-related questions to be asked in addition to the Four Questions. This year, I’m suggesting that we take a new approach to another major component of the seder, the reading of the 10 plagues.
Before traditionalists take to social media to ask for my scalp, listen to my reasoning: With our 21st-century “biblical” plague entering its third year – and with the horrific images from Ukraine depressing and distressing us daily – it would be unseemly to dwell on the punishments directed at the ancient Egyptians: 1. Dam (blood), 2. ts’fardei-a (frogs), 3. kinim (lice), 4. arov (wild beasts), 5. dever (diseases), 6. sh’chin (boils), 7. barad (hail), 8. arbeh (locusts), 9. choshech (darkness), 10. makat b’chorot (the death of the first-born son in every Egyptian family).
So how should we approach the plagues? Tradition and history demand that we read them, and spill a drop of wine or grape juice after mentioning each one. But this year, I suggest we follow the recitation by emphasizing what comes next in the seder, rather than the plagues: the singing of one of the most joyous seder songs, “Dayeinu.” Why? Because its inspiring and humbling verses offer hope for better days ahead:
“If God had only created the world and not brought us out of Egypt, it would have been enough (dayeinu).
“If God had only brought us out of Egypt but not divided the sea, it would have been enough (dayeinu).
“If God had only divided the sea but not helped us cross on dry land, it would have been enough (dayeinu).
“If God had only helped us cross on dry land, but had not given us the Sabbath, it would have been enough (dayeinu).
“If God had only given us the Sabbath but had not given us the Torah, it would have been enough (dayeinu).
“If God had only given us the Torah, but had not sent us wise teachers, it would have been enough (dayeinu).”
The song is the balm we need to soothe our frayed nerves, and to restore some of our faith in humanity’s ability to persevere in these turbulent times.
Bless you, and have a meaningful and happy Pesach.
LARRY KESSLER (email@example.com) is a freelance writer based in North Attleboro. He blogs at https://larrytheklineup.blogspot.com.