Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Why, this year, this night is
different from all other nights

The Four Questions (Ma Nishtanah) from Arthur Szyk’s ‘Haggadah,’ Łódź, 1935

Patrick Comerford

Passover commemorates the Exodus of the Jews from slavery into Egypt, and is holiday that celebrates redemption, resilience, community and regrowth. Faced with today’s global uncertainty, these themes seem especially important to celebrate.

Pesach or Passover this year is being celebrated from sundown this evening [8 April 2020] until Thursday 16 April.

The Passover story, with its accounts of slavery, hardship and ten plagues, is particularly poignant this year with the fears and isolation created by the coronavirus and the hope for liberation and freedom.

The traditional Passover Seder or dinner, celebrated in family homes on this evening, includes specific symbolic foods and biblical references to what happened with Moses and Pharaoh before God freed the enslaved Jews more than 3,000 years ago.

The Seder is the most commonly celebrated of all Jewish rituals takes place in much the same way among Jews all over the world.

‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’ … a painting in the Jewish Museum in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Traditionally, during the meal, the youngest person present asks the Four Questions, Ma Nishtana (מה נשתנה), beginning, ‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’

1, On all other nights we eat either bread or matzah. Why, on this night, do we eat only matzah?

2, On all other nights we eat herbs of any kind. Why, on this night, do we eat only bitter herbs?

3, On all other nights, we do not dip our herbs even once. Why, on this night, do we dip them twice?

4, On all other nights, we eat either sitting or leaning. Why, on this night, do we eat while leaning?

The questions are answered in this way:

1, We eat only matzah because our ancestors could not wait for their breads to rise when they were fleeing slavery in Egypt, and so they were flat when they came out of the oven.

2, We eat only maror, a bitter herb, to remind us of the bitterness of slavery that our ancestors endured while in Egypt.

3, The first dip, green vegetables in salt water, symbolizes the replacing of our tears with gratitude, and the second dip, maror in charoses, symbolises the sweetening of our burden of bitterness and suffering.

4,We recline at the Seder table because in ancient times, a person who reclined at a meal was a free person, while slaves and servants stood.

But this year is different from all other years: Jewish mourners cannot form a minyan, or quorum of 10 adults required for saying kaddish, a prayer in honour of the dead, because of the lockdown forced by the Covid-19 pandemic.

And this night is different from all other nights in another way, for Jewish families all over the world are wrestling with how to celebrate Passover in the midst of this lockdown.

Traditionally, Passover has been the one time of the year when people expect to see or visit their whole extended family. But even video calls and streaming on Zoom and other social media platforms are difficult for Jews in traditions where using electricity on Shabbat and other Jewish holidays is rejected. However, some prominent groups of Orthodox and Conservative rabbis in the US who have approved the use of video chat just for this year.

In addition, because food supplies and shopping trips have been limited, some people are suggesting replacing the a shankbone with a roasted carrot – long the practice of Jewish vegetarians. But how many supermarkets are selling matzo?

It is no consolation to remind families that the very first Seder meal was celebrated in hiding, by families locked away in their own homes, full of fear in the dark of night.

Families are also missing the day of bustle before the Seder, with people: crowding into the kitchen, laying out tables, lighting candles, opening wine bottles, turning over the pages of colourfully illustrated Haggadot, preparing to play their parts.

The meal begins with blessings and the first cups of wine (קדש, kadesih), followed by the traditions surrounding handwashing (ורחץ, urchatz). Judaism considers the washing of hands to be a sacred act. The Torah has many references to the priests washing their hands during ritual sacrifices, and in Jewish law washing hands with a blessing is an obligation before eating.

Of course, these rituals were developed centuries before modern medicine prescribed handwashing for protection against germs and infection. The global pandemic has made handwashing sacred on another level, for it is one of the most basic things everyone can do to ensure the well-being of the community.

The Jewish principle known as pikuach nefesh (פיקוח נפש) rules that saving life is paramount, and this precept supersedes all other commandments. Politicians need to agree that saving lives is always more important than saving an economy. Washing hands before continuing with the Seder has become a life-enhancing observance.

A traditional Seder plate in the Jewish Museum in Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Seder (סֵדֶר) literally means ‘order’ and the sequence is the same from year to year: sanctifying the wine, washing hands, dipping the karpas or bitter herb, breaking the middle matzoh, telling the Exodus story, the invitation, the Four Questions, and so on.

Seder customs include telling the story, discussing the story, drinking four cups of wine, eating matza, eating symbolic foods placed on the Passover Seder Plate, and reclining in celebration of freedom.

Eating matzah is a reminder that the fleeing slaves did not have enough time to let their bread dough rise when they left Egypt. However, when you think about it, as Rabbi Brant Rosen points out on his blog, there is nothing hasty about making matzah.

Baking unleavened bread is a process that demands great care and attention. Tradition says matzah dough must be baked no more than 18 minutes after the exposure of cut grain to moisture. If left to sit longer, airborne yeast bacteria will interact with the sugar molecules in the flour mixture and multiply by the billions. The yeast microorganisms will then release carbon dioxide gas that causes the dough to ferment.

This complex process illustrates how during a time of pandemic, we must follow very specific protocols to lessen the chances of contracting and spreading viral infection. Care in our personal behaviour is important because it has a direct impact on the greater good. Eating matzah on this Passover may remind many the sacred discipline required of each of us to ensure our mutual well-being and survival.

There is an obligation to drink four cups of wine during the Seder. The Mishnah says (Pesachim 10: 1) that even the poor are obliged to drink the four cups. Each cup is imbibed at a specific point in the Seder. The first is for Kiddush (קידוש), the second is for Maggid (מגיד), the third for Birkat Hamazon (ברכת המזון) and the fourth for Hallel (הלל).

The Four Cups represent God’s four promises of deliverance given to people as they are being liberated: ‘I will free you,’ ‘I will deliver you,’ ‘I will redeem you’ and ‘I will take you as my people’ (see Exodus 6: 6-7).

A traditional Seder plate in the Jewish Museum in Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Seder plate (קערה, ke’are) contains symbolic foods, with each of the six items arranged on the plate to convey special significance in the Exodus story. The six items on the Seder plate are:

Maror: bitter herb symbolises the bitterness and harshness of slavery in Egypt; many people use freshly grated horseradish or whole horseradish root.

Chazeret: romaine lettuce, whose roots are bitter-tasting; sometimes green onions, celery leaves, or parsley are used, with traditions varying among Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi, Persian and other traditions.

Charoset: a sweet, brown, pebbly paste of fruits and nuts, representing the mortar used by Jewish slaves to build storehouses in Egypt; Ashkenazim traditionally make apple-raisin based charoset, Sephardim often make date-based recipes that include orange, lemon or even banana.

Karpas: a vegetable other than bitter herbs, usually parsley but sometimes celery or cooked potato, dipped into salt water (Ashkenazim) or vinegar (Sephardim) at the beginning of the Seder.

Zeroa: a roasted lamb bone, symbolising the korban Pesach or Passover sacrifice).

Beitzah: a roast egg, usually a hard-boiled egg, symbolising the korban chagigah or festival sacrifice.

The seventh symbolic item during the meal – a stack of three matzot, symbolising ‘the bread of affliction’ – is placed on its own plate on the Seder table.

Jewish children learn the words, denoting the order of the Seder, with a rhyme and tune: Kaddesh (קדש). Urchatz (ורחץ). Karpas (כרפס). Yachatz (יחץ). Maggid (מגיד). Rachtzah (רחצה). Motzi Matzah (מוציא מצה). Maror (מרור). Korech (כורך). Shulchan Orech (שלחן עורך). Tzafun (צפון). Barech (ברך). Hallel (הלל). Nirtzah (נרצה).

The Cup of Elijah in the Jewish Museum in Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The traditional singing includes Dayenu (דַּיֵּנוּ), ‘It would have been enough,’ a rousing song that expresses gratitude to God for leading the Jewish slaves in ancient Egypt out of bondage and for the 15 gifts he has given, concluding with the Shabbat, Mount Sinai, the Torah, the Promised Land and the Temple. The door is opened to welcome Elijah, and then all rush in for the children to see whether Elijah drank from Elijah’s cup.

An important function of the Seder is handing on the story from one generation to the next. It recalls a night when families and households took refuge in their homes because of an invisible, deadly force that raged outside.

During the Holocaust and the decades that followed, the previous generation added Hitler and the Nazis to the list of plagues.

The Four Questions (Ma Nishtanah) in a page from Arthur Szyk’s ‘Haggadah,’ Łódź, 1935

The Polish-American artist Arthur Szyk (1894-1951), whose work I was introduced to through a recent visit to the Jewish East End in London, originally intended his Passover story of persecution and deliverance, told through the traditional text of the Haggadah, to be a strong statement against the Nazis.

However, no publisher in his native Poland dared to take on a project with strong anti-Nazi iconography. Eventually, he found a publisher in England.

His page with the Hebrew text of the Four Questions has an illustration showing an older bearded man listening as a young boy asks the traditional ‘Four Questions’ of the Seder.

In the top right corner is a red snake – understood to be Nazism – coiled as if ready to strike. The illustration is framed by a Hebrew letter מ (mem). In the upper left corner, there is a small letter ה (he), which completes the word Ma (מַה), the first word in the Hebrew text.

This year, this will be a Pesach like no other. People will sing traditional songs with traditional tunes remembered from childhood. But, just as a previous generation added Hitler and the Nazis to the list of plagues, the coronavirus will be added to the list of plagues in many homes this evening.

In a recent blog posting, Rabbi Brant Rosen writes: ‘When disasters such as pandemics occur, it can feel as if the world has been suddenly, brutally shattered. In truth, however, it is generally those with privilege and power who tend to react this way. Those who are oppressed or disenfranchised don’t need a disaster to remind them that the world has long been profoundly broken. Still, history has repeatedly demonstrated that when these fissures and cracks are ignored, they will inevitably spread to affect those who previously considered themselves invulnerable.’

In my night prayers, I often use the 'Prayers Before Sleep at Night’ in Authorised Daily Prayer Book, which includes Psalm 91 among the night prayers:

He will save you … from the deadly pestilence.
With his pinions he will cover you,
and beneath his wings you will find shelter;

You need not fear terror by night,
nor the arrow that flies by day;
not the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
nor the plague that ravages at noon. (Psalm 91: 3-6)

As in years before, this evening’s meals will end with the acclamation, ‘Next year in Jerusalem!’ It recognises that we live in an imperfect world this year, but we hope for more than a temporal city, we hope for a future of peace, prosperity and freedom.

Passover this year – like so many years in the past – is a reminder that we should never take our freedoms for granted. And it is a reminder too that we are not going to live in fear for ever.

‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’ … the Four Questions (Ma Nishtanah) in a page from Arthur Szyk’s ‘Haggadah,’ Łódź, 1935

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