Nisan Is a Time of Renewal
I was recently inspired by Adam Horowitz’s beautiful blog post “The One Year Mark: Ritual and Accompaniment Through the Pandemic Portal” to think how this time of renewal in the Jewish calendar comes right at the one year mark since the pandemic changed most of our lives. Horowitz lays out four elements that can be adapted to create a meaningful ritual and process for marking this time: Honoring grief; Naming what’s been learned and revealed; Crossing the threshold (an initiation rite); and Accompaniment and accountability. I’m struck by how well these elements map on to the Pesach Seder, coming up in two weeks.
Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (d. 1797, Ukraine) teaches that the Torah provides guidance to each generation throughout time by dressing itself in the needs and concerns of that particular era and season. Following this teaching, it makes sense that the wisdom of the Passover Seder would speak to the overwhelming need of this moment - the mourning, frustration, outrage at inequality, growth, uncertainty and rays of hope one year into the pandemic. Following Horowitz’s outline I can imagine integrating a “Marking One Year” consciousness into this year’s Seder looking something like this:
Honoring Grief/Yachatz and Beginning of Magid
When we raise and break the Matza at the beginning of the Seder and say Ha Lachma Anya/This is the bread of affliction… this year slaves, next year free, we can begin to name our grief and brokeness over who and what was lost this past year. This honoring of grief can continue, or start with the beginning of the Magid/the telling of the Exodus story. The narrative arc of the traditional story is from Gnai/Degradation to Shvach/Praise, so it is fitting to begin with space for grief at the beginning. I can imagine many ways of doing this, from weaving in current losses with the ancient Exodus story, or taking time to just focus on the pandemic.
Naming what’s been learned and revealed/Middle and End of Magid
The traditional Passover story, told during Magid, highlights the miracles God performed in freeing us from bondage with the goal of creating gratitude (Dayenu) and faith in God. There is a learning element here that can be adapted to reflect on what’s been learned over the past year of COVID. Just as God’s presence was revealed through the Exodus, we can ask what was revealed by the pandemic that was hidden from our view. While these reflections may be more somber than the general tone of this part of the Seder, learning and revealed realities can be fuel for change.
Crossing the Threshold/Eating Matzah
Horowitz relates this element to an initiation ritual that helps one move through liminal space to the other side. We are still in the pandemic and not yet free. Yet, with the vaccine being distributed around the world, there is a good possibility that the coming year will be much different than the last. The central ritual moment of the Seder is fulfilling the mitzvah of eating matzah. Eating matzah on the night of the 15th of the Hebrew month of Nissan (Passover night) is the only eating we still do that is a mitzvah directly from the Torah. Matzah is the bread of liberation. Grounded in our grief, energized by our learning, now it is time to get free from this past year of the pandemic itself and move towards transforming the oppressive society that was so clearly revealed over this past year. I recommend creating an intention and vision of what freedom could look like before saying the blessing on the matzah. Then eat the matzah without talking for a minute or so, ingesting the bread of freedom with awareness that our ancestors have been eating this same unleavened bread at this same time every year for thousands of years on the slow walk towards Jewish and collective liberation.
Accompaniment and Accountability/Hallel- Songs of Praise
So we don’t go back to a normal that was not very good for many people and the planet, we will all need to change behaviors, individually and collectively coming out of the pandemic. What is something you learned over this past year that you want to change or continue? Behavioral change works best when we have companions and to support us and hold us accountable. This part of the Seder is traditionally when Hallel/psalms and prayers of praise are sung. In the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Levite’s, whose name literally means “accompaniers,” would sing Hallel while the priests prepared and offered the passover sacrifices on the alter. We can discuss who will accompany us and hold us accountable for the personal changes we want to make coming out of the pandemic.
With gratitude to Adam Horowitz for his inspiring framework, I offer these thoughts as a potential guide for how we can adapt Jewish ritual to help us heal and move through this significant moment in world history. May we tap into the spirit of renewal this Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the beginning of the months, and throughout this month of redemption.