By Josh Weiner – this is the first article of a series. The second one, with concrete tips, can be found here.
One who is alone should ask themselves: “Why is this night different?”
(Maimonides, Laws of Unleavened Bread 7:3)
הָיָה לְבַדּוֹ שׁוֹאֵל לְעַצְמוֹ מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה:
(משנה תורה, הלכות חמץ ומצה ז׳:ג׳)
This sentence has been sitting in the Jewish law-books for a thousand years. While almost everything else written about Pesach has been analysed and commented on from dozens of directions, this sentence has been almost completely ignored. Being alone on seder night was not a practical possibility that anybody could imagine.
This year we see it differently. For perhaps the first time in Jewish history, thousands of people will be holding the Seder alone. We have no precedent for this, no collective memory to call upon, no commentaries on that theoretical law of being alone, no certainty of the right way to act, and no united leadership. But we still have a few tricks up our sleeves: chutzpah, creativity, and hope. We’ll be telling the story of this year’s Pesach to future generations, with God’s help.
Let’s turn back to that line in Maimonides’ law code, and write our own commentary right now. “One who is alone should ask themselves: “Why is this night different?” It’s a damn strange question, if you’re alone. Pretty much everything is different this year, including the fact that we’re alone! Although the reference is to the Mah Nishtanah, the formalised questions that are included in the Seder ritual, it might be better to translate this not as a question, but as a statement of wonder: “How different this night is!”
But we can look at all this from a different perspective, if we choose. Pesach is the festival of freedom, of spring-time springiness, of passing-over, of lightness. The Pesach seder was a home ritual that had very few rules or fixed texts: the emphasis was on encouraging children to be curious and adults to be creative. There was a powerful ancient story to be told – “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and now we are free people” – and that story was meant to be recited in a way that would bring everyone around the table together as participants in the narrative. We were slaves, we are free. And not just free-from, but free-to: a whole set of values was to be discussed through the symbols of the story and the meal, children were taught the responsibilities that free Jews have taken upon themselves. And if over time the texts and the rituals became heavy and fixed and incomprehensible, there’s something of the Pesach lightness that perhaps this crazy year allows us to reclaim.
While the difficulties of holding a Seder by oneself are many and obvious, there are also a few surprising advantages that come along with it. We’re actually free. We’re stuck at home and stuck with ourselves and stuck with our freedom – this is a unique opportunity to deconstruct the Seder rituals and truly make them ours. Make the story one that we find authentic, see the rituals as powerful, and eat a delicious meal on our own, everything at our own pace.
The Torah speaks four times, in slightly different ways, of telling the story of Pesach to children. (This telling is the meaning of the word Haggadah.) The rabbis were sensitive to the subtle changes in these four texts, and created a model of four types of children asking four types of questions: a wise child, a rebellious child, a simple child, and a child who does not know how to ask. The question-and-answer model of telling the story of Pesach was deemed to be the most important and most flexible, it allowed each telling of the story to fit the children asking it. And as many have pointed out over the years, the four children are not necessarily character types, but four different aspects active in every questioning soul. We all have our wise, rebellious, simple and silent sides. And yet: “One who is alone should ask themselves…” What is weird and wonderful about this year is that all those four sides get to enter into a conversation with each other.
- Our wise side might ask: what are the instructions for doing a Seder correctly?
- Our rebellious side might interject: why the hell should I do this, while the world is going crazy outside?
- Our simple side might wonder: what’s this all about?
- Our silent side might not be able to put words to the enormity of the situation, and our powerlessness.
We are also publishing a step-by-step guide which is a collection of resources for those alone at the Seder this year. You are welcome to use anything here, adapt it, or ignore it. This is mainly a call to creativity, to embrace the strangeness of the situation that we’ve been flung into and to use it as an opportunity to reclaim the ancient Pesach Seder as our own.
Let’s translate it like this: One who is alone should exclaim – “How different this night can be!”