Shabbat shalom, everyone. What a week it’s been. Fiona asked me to put together a sermon for today, as we sadly won’t be celebrating Abby Steinberg’s bat mitzvah today – like many other events, it has been postponed to a happier time. I’m sure you’ll join me in wishing the Steinberg family all the best.
Traditionally the sermon for Shabbat Hagadol, the shabbat before Pesach, is long and intricate. It’s the usual custom for whoever is giving the sermon to delve deeply into the rules of Passover observance, even taking questions from the audience on thorny problems of chametz and cleaning. There’s even an alternative explanation that it’s called ‘Shabbat Hagadol’ because of how much later everyone was supposed to return from the synagogue today compared to from usual services! I’m sure you’ll forgive me for keeping things shorter today. It’s also the custom for an ‘outstanding Torah scholar’ to address the congregation at this time. I can’t claim to be that either, but I will try my best to say something useful!
It’s going to be a very strange Passover this year. As the grim news continues, we are simultaneously trying to prepare for the one of the biggest holidays of the Jewish calendar. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been cleaning my kitchen while scrolling through a news feed on my phone (I should probably stop doing both at once!). The combination of Pesach prep and coronavirus anxiety can feel overwhelming. So today I hope to share a few suggestions and resources on how we can make the best of our situations and find a way to celebrate Passover that feels meaningful despite the coronavirus crisis.
Many people are hosting a Seder themselves for the first time this year, as they are unable to meet up with extended family. Still others are faced with the prospect of doing a Seder alone, because they are taking a socially responsible action and cutting themselves off from their usual gatherings of friends and food. Some folks, like myself, have been sent an NHS letter telling them to stay away from others over the next 12 weeks – I’ve been getting very familiar with the inside of my flat and my balcony! At Beth Shalom we were looking forward to sharing our wonderful communal Seder which has of course also had to be cancelled. People everywhere feel adrift, cut off from their usual experiences at this time of year. Whether you’re a key worker pushing through the tiredness of yet another shift to keep vital goods flowing, or a vulnerable person feeling lonely or bored at staying at home, your experience of Passover is going to be vastly different from usual this year.
The main advice I want to share with you is something that has been the hardest for me to let go of: this Passover doesn’t have to match others. There’s really no way that it can. Whatever changes you end up making this Passover, by practicing social distancing you are already prioritising the biggest mitzvah of them all, Pikuach Nefesh, saving lives. So if you don’t have enough matzah (or the right matzah, or any matzah at all) that’s OK. I’ve finally accepted that isn’t going to be the year that I master that intricate Passover cake recipe from my mother-in-law. Our Reform movement’s leading Rabbi, Laura Janner-Klausner explains: “Saving your life and the people around you is far more important than the right matzahs or the right kosher l’pesach things.” She continues, “What is kosher l’pesach right now is you and your health and the health of people around you, so do not risk your health or the people around you just to get some food that you might think you need.”
And it isn’t just the Reform movement that has reached out to advise Jews to change how they observe Passover this year. Even the London Beit Din have relaxed some of their usually stringent rules on which kosher products need special supervision for Passover, and released a special list of permitted foods for this year. Several senior Sephardic Orthodox rabbis in Israel have ruled that families may conduct their shared Seder over videoconference, despite the normal ban under Orthodox interpretations of halacha on the use of electronic devices during Shabbat and festivals.
The rabbis argue in their ruling that “Just as it is permissible for a non-critical patient to receive treatment on Shabbat to cure him of illness, such is the case here” with the need being “to alleviate sadness from elders and the needy” who cannot attend their normal family Seder. Their response is an important milestone in the recognition of how important mental, as well as physical, health is for us all.
The sadness that we feel at being unable to embrace others and take part in communal traditions is real. It’s ever-present, and we have to acknowledge it. It can be really tough. But within the framework that we have, there are still ways to spend time with others. We’re doing one of them right now! I was initially pretty skeptical about how much video-conferencing could help during isolation, but I’m a total fan now – it makes such a difference in my mood to see the faces of friends and family, even if we can’t be in the same place physically. I’m also calling people a lot more than I’m normally accustomed to as an introvert!
Many people are hosting Seders using videoconferencing. Take a look at www.reformjudaism.org.uk/covid-19-information/pesach-seder-resources for an up-to-date list of all of the community events that are being streamed online for you to join. For instance, Rabbi Janner-Klausner has extended her invitation to all members of the Reform movement who would like to register for her virtual second-night seder, which she is hosting over Facebook Live. If you’re interested, just email with the subject line “Seder RSVP”.
Our own Communal Seder is going online too, so you’re spoilt for choice! Sheila and Mike Levy will be leading their virtual second-night Seder starting at 6.30pm on Thursday 9th April. There are more details of how to join in the Beth Shalom newsletter, or you can ask Sheila after the service. The more the merrier!
If you’re planning on running your own Seder for the first time this year and feeling a bit lost, the good news is there are a lot of resources online to help you, including several full haggadahs to choose from. I really like the Velveteen Rabbi’s haggadah, by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. It focuses on feminism and the environment and can be found here . I also love ‘The Wandering Is Over Haggadah’ which can be found here and has detailed guidance for leaders, particularly helpful if you are leading for the first time. The Reform movement’s haggadah is now available online for free for the first time this year and can be found here . It features illustrations by Hertfordshire-based folk artist Suzy Taylor, whose papercuts are meticulously cut with a blade from a single piece of paper.
But my favourite of all is www.haggadot.com. Here you can design and make your own haggadah – it’s how we make ours each year. The www.haggadot.com website contains clips, text, pictures and inspiration from all over the world, and you can customise everything to make it your own. There are thousands of options on the site for blessings, artwork, translations, songs and more. Get your kids involved by scanning their artwork and adding it to your custom haggadah! At the end of the process you get a professional-looking booklet that you can print at home or share online with friends if you’re hosting a virtual Seder. It can be a meaningful way to get into the Passover spirit, especially if you can’t make the festive foods you usually would this year. Another great resource for families with kids is Bible Belt Buster – she has endlessly creative ways to entertain and tell the story of Jewish holidays with lego and simple crafts.
I’d like to read a final story to you all. You’ve probably heard it before, but for me it has new resonance today. It’s a story about stories.
“When the Baal Shem Tov had a difficult task before him, he would go into a certain place in the woods, light a fire and meditate in prayer – and what he had set out to perform was done.
When a generation later, the Magid of Meseritz was faced with the same task he would go to the same place in the woods and say, “We can no longer light the fire, but we can still speak the prayers,” – and what he wanted done became a reality.
Again a generation later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sassov had to perform the task. And he too went into the woods and said: “We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayer, but we do know the place in the woods – and that must be sufficient” – and sufficient it was.
But when another generation had passed and Rabbi Israel of Rishin was called upon to perform the task, he sat in his chair at the head of his table and said, “We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of how it was done.” And the story which he told had the same effect as the actions of the other three.”
We cannot gather together physically. Some of us cannot perform all of the mitzvot of Passover this year. But we can tell each other the stories. We can support one another. And that will be enough.
Shabbat Hagadol mevorach, everyone – a blessed Shabbat HaGadol.