Rediscovering Passover by Rabbi Nanus
The Passover seders of my childhood were magical and unforgettable. Each year, four generations of thirty or more people would cram into my great-grandmother’s tiny apartment on the North Side of Chicago where the dining room table had been extended all the way into the living room and all the men’s chairs had been plumped up with colorful pillows so that they could recline like true free men. (The women had no pillows on their chairs, but most of them barely sat down, since they were always in and out of the kitchen, serving course after course)
The table was covered with a magnificent hand-made tablecloth which my great grandmother had brought to America from Hungary in 1911; the dishes and the crystal glasses gleamed like new since they were only used one week a year (we always changed our dishes for Pesach), and air was redolent with enchanting and enticing smells – homemade gefilte fish, matza ball soup, chopped liver made by hand in a wooden bowl, fresh horseradish shredded from the roots that my grandmother grew in her backyard garden, chicken, brisket, potato kugel and other delicacies that made us dizzy with desire.
The seder seemed endless to my young mind as the Haggadah was chanted in Hebrew, Yiddish, Hungarian and English by my great-grandfather, my grandfather, my great-uncles, my father, and my uncles, while the women gossiped and my siblings, cousins and I spent our time trying to figure out where the Afikomen might be hidden. Looking back, it was another world from another time, now lost and never to be recovered.
By the time I was in college, our seder had moved to my parents’ house. My great-grandparents and my grandfather had passed away, and my grandmother and my mother now did all the cooking while my sister, brothers and I set the table and planned the seder. Even after I graduated and moved to New York, I always flew home to Chicago for what had become the touchstone of my Jewish identity – family, tradition, ritual, love, and of course, food.
The table was still long and full, but now all the guests were our aunts, uncles and cousins, some of our parents’ friends, and any friends of ours that had no place to spend Pesach. Now the Haggadah was in Hebrew and English and we all participated, singing joyfully, asking questions and discussing the meaning of freedom.
One year, my brother David brought home five of his fellow medical students because they were all from New York. Among them was a beautiful girl named Bonnie whom my entire family immediately fell in love with. It took David a little longer, but recently they celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary. Sitting at their seder table this weekend will be their three children and their spouses and their four grandchildren.
For many years, I would either spend the seders with my family or friends, but when I became a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, I began to conduct the Temple Seders on the first night of Pesach. In 2019, we had 180 people – the entire Chapel at the Irmas Campus was filled with congregants, families and their friends, people of all ages, reading, singing, blessing and dipping together. The tables were full, and so was my heart as we all shared the ancient story of our slavery and redemption.
As the years passed, my seders had grown bigger, not smaller. And then came 2020.
It was a year we will never forget, and a Passover like no other for me and so many others. Passover that year was still early in the pandemic. It was a time of great uncertainty. People were dying in terrifying numbers and ways. It was uncertain how it spread or what could stop it. Our own tradition of ridding our homes of Chametz seemed to be adopted everywhere that Passover with everyone thorough cleaning, wiping down anything that could possibly come into contact with our hands and mouths. We were in lockdown. I sat completely alone at my dining room table, peering at a zoom screen at members of my family, including my daughter. The lone kiddush cup, the scantly filled seder plate, the single bowl of soup all looked so sad on the table. For the first time in my life, I did not have a second seder. I just didn’t have the heart.
Last year, in 2021, Los Angeles was emerging from a dark winter of cases and there was reason for hope with vaccines becoming available. But we were still a long way away from the sights and sounds of our community seders or the seders of my youth.
Every year on Passover, we tell the story of how our ancestors moved from slavery to freedom. We recount how they left Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, which also means “the narrow places” and celebrated the glorious gift of liberation. Each year we are commanded to act as if we personally have been liberated from bondage and personally understand what it is to be free. In 2020, it was certainly true. In 2020, we did lose our freedom. We all lived in the narrow places of quarantines and closures and covered faces. We all suffered from so many plagues, both physical and emotional. We all witnessed the slaying not of the first born but of victims of racism, sexism, white-supremacy, anti-Semitism, queer-phobia and other fanaticisms.
Our confinement continued for another year, testing us. We saw fissures grow between neighbors and our fellow Americans. With vaccines in our arms and masks on our faces, we saw case numbers in Los Angeles drop. On warm Friday nights we could welcome the Shabbat bride together outdoors, as we always do in summer. Yet the virus lingered, rising to unprecedented heights as we entered the new year, even if the sickness was less severe and life-threatening for the vaccinated.
This year, in 2022, we confront a new horror, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the devastation, destruction, and desecration of human life. Despite the atrocity of this war, the Ukrainian people, led by their Jewish President, demonstrate their courage, resolve, and determination to be a free and democratic nation. They remind us of the very meaning of freedom and what it means to be free.
This year the symbols on our Passover table take on new meaning as never before. It is a study of contrasts, as we emerge from the pandemic at the same time the Russian aggression in Ukraine casts a dark shadow.
The salt water represents the tears that were shed for almost one 1,000,000 Americans, including some of our own loved ones, who lost their lives since March of 2020. These tears are for Ukraine and its independent people under attack. We cry for casualties of war, the injured and the dead, and displaced.
The maror and chazeret symbolize the bitterness that has divided our nation over politics, social justice, and civic responsibility. Maror and chazeret also symbolize the bitterness of war and conflict between nations. The charoset reminds us of all the brick buildings that stood empty this year – schools, offices and other places of business, restaurants, theaters, concert halls and places of worship, including our own beautiful sanctuary. This year, we will remember the ruins of homes, schools, hospital, theaters, bridges, and roads in Ukraine. The shankbone stands for the sacrifices of our doctors, nurses, healthcare and essential workers here and around the world who risk their lives and the lives of their families to save and preserve ours.
The roasted egg is not just a symbol of birth and renewal, but also of the ingenuity and dedication of scientists all over the world who worked feverishly to create a new vaccine. Out of the war in Ukraine, we see free nations around the world come together.
The karpas, our symbol of spring, represents our rekindled love and appreciation for the natural world, for the beauty of plants and animals which sustained and comforted us when we could not hug, touch, or even see each other’s faces. And finally, the matza. The bread of affliction and freedom. The simple flat cracker that according to our rabbis, is “not puffed up” to teach us humility. Oh, how we have been humbled this year! We have finally come to understand what is really important.
We have been through more than we could have ever imagined. There has been so much loss, so much fear, so much anguish and anger and despair and depression.
Yet there is hope. Glimmers of light. Slivers of optimism. We have started to entertain dreams and plans and possibilities for the future after living for months from day to day. Ironically or not, in commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day this year, a social media campaign — #Don’tBeABystander: Those Who Risked It All To Save A Life.
“One of the things we’re trying to convey is the power of the individual — that one person can make a difference,” said Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference.
“In Jewish tradition, there is a teaching. If you save one life, it’s as if you’ve saved the whole world.”
There are many stories of Jewish heroes during the Holocaust – in the Warsaw Ghetto and others, in the Jewish partisan groups, in the camps themselves. Jews fought back wherever and whenever they could, but the odds were against them because of the indifference of so many who witnessed their suffering and degradation. As Elie Wiesel so desperately tried to convey –
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
The Holocaust began slowly. Age-old prejudice led to discrimination, discrimination to persecution, persecution to incarceration, incarceration to annihilation. Mass murder, which culminated with the killing of six million Jews, did not begin with the Jews nor did it encompass only the Jews. The violations of one groups’ rights are seldom contained only to that group.
In these increasingly troubled and divisive times, perhaps we should ask ourselves, “If and when we see injustice, the distortion and destruction of our highest ideals, the propagation of lies, the increase of hatred, violence and suffering, how will we respond?
Tomorrow night, I will not celebrate Pesach alone. It will probably be one of the most meaningful and cherished seders in my life.
Tomorrow night, I will take part in a discussion about the meaning of Pesach in 2022. Tomorrow night I will ask everyone to answer four new questions:
What have we lost?
What have we gained? What have we learned?
What must we change?
And then I will ask everyone how they will approach our world with new eyes and a new awareness of what freedom really means. Perhaps you might do the same.