Passover Seders around the world will look a little different this year.
As millions of Americans stay home and avoid gatherings to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Jewish families are finding new ways to connect for this traditional dinner that includes a retelling of Jews fleeing Egypt.
Austin Rabbi Lev Baesh, who is at home with his husband, Andrew, and dog, is already rethinking his Seder dinner. "I’ve been thinking, ‘How do I tell the story with things I already have?’" he says.
The traditional Passover meal usually includes key components — bitter greens, matzoh, salt water, and the ingredients for the apple-nut-cinnamon mixture called harouset — that are available at many supermarkets and grocery stores, but many of them might be running low on supplies this year. Most of the websites that sell a Passover in a Box kit are already sold out.
Baesh is getting creative. For the matzoh, which symbolizes poverty, slavery and haste, Baesh looked for other things that were bound up, like a string tied into knots or even an antidiarrheal medicine.
Baesh says it’s more important that whatever is on the plate has a storytelling element. It doesn’t have to be edible. Salt water, that’s easy, but harouset, the sticky, thick mixture that is symbolic of bricks and mortar, could be replaced with Legos, hardware or a hammer, anything to make you think about the work of building.
Dried parsley or oregano would work for the bitter greens if you don’t have access to fresh herbs, and if you don’t have any eggs, Baesh suggests using some other object to symbolize new life or a donation to support someone else.
Baesh says he expected people to be sharing a Seder meal through every kind of virtual communication, including Zoom and Google Hangouts. Orthodox Jews have been given permission to use computers to connect for Passover, which this year takes place on the night of April 8.
No matter how you gather or celebrate, "the most important piece about Passover is telling a story that is about going from bondage to freedom," Baesh says.
In the Passover story, the Israelites cross the Red Sea to escape the Pharaoh, and the first thing they do on the other side is to look back at where they came from. "We looked back at our life in bondage with a kind of nostalgia," he says. "We are in the bondage of being home, worried and anxious, but there is a lesson for us that we can use this time now to think about the memories we are creating that we will want to remember in the future."
Even with an uncertain future, we can comfort ourselves knowing that the cycle between suffering and freedom has been happening for many thousands of years.
The end of the Passover story is typically when the Israelites are still in the wilderness, not the Promised Land. "We still have a long journey to go," he says. "What do we use to get comfortable in the wilderness and not try to get out of it or avoid it?" he says.
Baesh, who is also a nurse and works in academia, says that it’s reasonable for us to be thinking in the long term about having to be willing to shelter in place when needed. "Passover gives us the tools to help us remember when we’ve been in trouble before and that there has been some good in it," he says. "There’s a sense that we’re in this together, and that we have the storytelling tools to create the story the way we want to tell it, not how people are telling it to us."
How we tell ourselves — and our children — the story of what is happening right now and how we are responding to it will be important in future generations. "We can get through it and we can live in it and we can decide what we want to remember about this time, rather than be worried about the next time it happens."
Another traditional aspect of a Seder dinner is asking the table four questions that inspire thought-provoking conversations about life, faith and community.
Baesh says that asking those questions online would be a great way to connect with friends and family from afar, even without going through the entire Seder ritual. "‘Is there any good that can come out of this, and what would that be?’ would be a great question to ask," he says. "How do we respond now so that when we go back to normal life, these lessons won’t slip away? How are we still free in the face of this situation?"
Baesh has been hosting virtual Shabbat services via the Waking Giants Instagram page (@forthegoodfight) that have drawn participants from California to New Hampshire. Waking Giants’ co-founder Sera Bonds also wrote a special Haggadah "for Passover during a plague" that you can download for a $10 suggested donation at wakinggiants.me.
Jewish Women International is hosting a virtual Seder that is open to the public on April 9. The Union for Reform Judaism has pulled together a number of digital Haggadah, playlists and questions for each step of the Seder, which you can find at urj.org.
"We don’t have to wait for stuff to happen," he says. "Passover is the opportunity to build that storytelling ability so when we get to the next place, we already have a way of talking about it."
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Red Sea.