Meaning helps mitigate lonely seders
How do we deal with the unprecedented reality of a seder under lockdown on a practical and emotional level?
“We are being called upon to demonstrate resilience and strength this year, but we have weathered far worse storms before,” says Rabbi Ramon Widmonte, the dean of the Academy of Jewish Thought & Learning. “One of the messages of the seder is that we are still here, still devoted to our mission. That resilience is in our bones – we can do this!”
So how do we do it, even if we’re alone? “Every Jewish adult [man and woman] is required to participate in the Pesach seder, even on their own. The halacha clearly states that they should even ask the four questions themselves, and then answer them,” says Widmonte.
“The key mitzvot [commandments] of the evening apply as usual even to someone on their own: drinking the four cups of wine, eating matzah, maror, the meal, benching, and saying Hallel, and most especially, retelling and remembering the exodus from Egypt [including explaining the import of Pesach, matzah, and maror]. One must add that besides the mitzvot of the night, everyone has a constant obligation to care for the needs of the elderly, needy, and lonely, especially those who are our parents and grandparents, whom we are additionally commanded to honour.
“As such, we must make every effort to ensure that those on their own have as much support [besides the required food] as possible, and we must strive to be extra sensitive to them at this time.”
Regarding using technology to connect with other family members during the seder, he advises, “As always, people should ask their personal halachic guide [usually their community rabbi] for guidance.”
“The haggadah contains the core of the seder – one can always add to it. With fewer people, it’s an opportunity to do things which aren’t feasible in larger groups. For those interested in guidance, they can join our solo seder online course for guidance [email email@example.com for details],” he says.
Under lockdown, even the most vulnerable in our community must have access to Pesachdik products. “Thank G-d, the kosher shops and supermarkets are still open, and have more than enough kosher products, and the Beth Din has put out a wide list this year, so no one should have a problem obtaining these products. If they are elderly or quarantined, they should allow their family or friends to help them out and do some shopping for them,” says the rabbi.
To community members who are thinking of flouting lockdown rules and gathering for a seder, he says, “Our community leadership has been clear about our obligations in this regard, especially regarding the possible infection of older members of our community, for whom this may be fatal. G-d forbid that anyone should have this on their conscience.
From a psychological perspective, “Knowing what to expect during the days and weeks ahead goes a long way to prepare yourself emotionally for the challenge,” says educational psychologist Sheryl Cohen.
“The trouble is that it’s novel. There’s no precedent. There’s no sense of “what we did last time”.
“This makes it particularly anxiety-provoking. We human beings don’t like to sit with the difficult feelings of ‘not knowing’. We like to gain control and mastery over ourselves and our world. But the days and weeks ahead leave us with a sense of helplessness which leads to feelings of vulnerability,” she says.
“How do we deal with this? Many of us scramble for more and more information. But even with all the information at our fingertips, we are all feeling quite helpless. Our feelings of vulnerability also help us to identify with others. We get an opportunity for empathy: what it might feel like to be homeless; what it might feel like to be working on the frontline, and so on. This creates opportunities for unity, for empathy, for connection, kindness, and care in a way that might not have been possible a few weeks ago.”
She says there are various emotions we may experience around Pesach that are different to all others. First, optimism. For example, we could think, “This is going to be a simple Pesach. No extra cooking and fancy recipes.” We may also feel determined to keep going, but others may experience anger or irritation.
There also may be a sense of regret. “I should have fixed this before lockdown, or bought that before Pesach.”
“The human psyche tries to create equilibrium by creating a fantasy of what one can’t do in reality,” says Cohen. “We also may feel overwhelmed, or despair at missing loved ones and what we took for granted. Finally, we will begin to make meaning of our new normal, seeing it as a time of service to greater humanity, keeping safe, and keeping others safe too.
“The process is one of grief and loss. But if we can edit the experience with meaning, then we will be able to balance the losses and the gains in order to make this time more manageable,” says Cohen.
Why we refuse to forget
Devarim is the parsha associated with Tisha B’Av, the Jewish national day of mourning. This Shabbos, we read the famous Haftarah of Chazon, the vision of Isaiah. And, next Thursday, we will recall the destruction of our holy temple nearly 2 000 years ago.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman, Sydenham Shul
But why remember? The world cannot understand why we go on about the Holocaust, and that was only 75 years ago! For more than 19 centuries, we have been remembering and observing this event, and it has become the saddest day in our calendar. Why? Why not let bygones be bygones? It’s history. What was, was. Why keep revisiting old and painful visions?
They say that Napoleon was once passing through the Jewish ghetto in Paris, and heard sounds of crying and wailing emanating from a synagogue. He stopped to ask what the lament was about. He was told that the Jews were remembering the destruction of their Temple. “When did it happen?” asked the Emperor. “About 1 700 years ago,” was the answer. Whereupon Napoleon stated with conviction that a people who never forgot its past would be destined to forever have a future.
Elie Wiesel once said, “Jews never had history. We have memory.” History can become a book, a museum, and forgotten antiquities. Memory is alive, memories reverberate, and memory guarantees our future.
Even amidst the ruins, we refused to forget. The first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. As they were led into captivity, the Jews sat down and wept. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept remembering Zion.” What did they cry for? Their lost wealth, homes, and businesses? No. They cried for Zion and Jerusalem. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning.” They weren’t weeping for themselves or their lost liberties, but for the heavenly city and holy temple. Amidst the bondage, they aspired to rebuild, amidst the ruins, they dreamt of returning.
And, because we refused to forget Jerusalem, we did return. And, because we refused to accept defeat or accept our exile as a historical fait accompli, we have rebuilt proud Jewish communities the world over while our victors have been vanquished by time. The Babylonian and Roman destroyers of old are no more. Those nations became history while we, inspired by memory, emerged revitalised and regenerated, and forever it will be true that am Yisrael chai.
Only if we refuse to forget can we hope to rebuild one day. If we are to make our return to Zion successful and permanent, if our people are to harbour the hope of being restored and revived internationally, then we dare not forget. We need to observe our national day of mourning next Wednesday night and Thursday. Forego whatever entertainment options your COVID-19 lockdown allows. Sit down on a low seat to mourn with your people, and perhaps even more importantly, to remember. And, please G-d, He will restore those glorious days, and rebuild His own everlasting house. May it be speedily in our day.
Strength in diversity
The double portion of Matos/Massei deals with Moshe divvying up the land for the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
Rabbi Ryan Goldstein, West Street Shul
Moshe didn’t choose land based on population size, demographics, or even agricultural usefulness, it was all decided through the casting of lots. Leaving such an arduous task in the capable hands of Hashem was the best way to dodge any farribles.
The Twelve Tribes, once settled in the Holy Land, could finally bring to fruition the mammoth task of being a light to the rest of humanity. As the prophet Isaiah foretells, “Ki mitZiyon tetzei Torah [Torah will come forth out of Zion].”
The harmonious unity of the Twelve Tribes in one centralised place was very much like an orchestra, with multiple sounds coming together to form a beautiful symphony.
In fact, that’s how Hashem prefers things. He displays this to us through the diversity of nature. If Hashem wanted only one way of doing things, then nature would have sufficed with one type of fauna. For example, there would be only penguins around or zebras. Forget about the beautiful and intricate multitudes of glorious beasts, big and small, that inhabit our earth and deep seas. Hashem makes it obvious that He wants unity to thrive out of diversity.
The same is true of the tribes of Israel. Hashem wasn’t happy with Israel being represented by an Avraham figure, an Isaac, or even a Jacob alone. And even though Jacob was called Israel, that wasn’t our legacy until we became bnei Yisrael (the children of Israel). Why? Harmony through diversity. The tribe of Yehuda was earmarked for kingship, Yosef were to be the politicians, Issachar could sit and learn Torah all day, Zevulun were the sea-faring merchants, Shimon were the educators, and Levi were the priests and temple workers. One man/identity couldn’t be all things.
And so it should be today. Our job is not to judge, and to be tolerant of the paths and journeys each person has in trying to make their legacy within the realm of Judaism and Torah.
Visiting the sick good for our spiritual health
There is a fundamental mitzvah that is alluded to in this week’s parsha. When Moshe addresses the Jewish people in the stand-off against the rebel faction led by Korach, he says the following, “If these die like the death of all men, and the visiting of all men is visited upon them, then it is not Hashem Who has sent me.” (Numbers 16:29)
Rabbi Yonatan Landau, Ohr Somayach Savoy
The Talmud in Nedarim 39B discusses these mysterious words. What is Moshe referring to when he says, “the visiting of all men is visited upon them”?
The Talmud explains that this alludes to the mitzvah of bikkur cholim – visiting the sick.
What exactly does this mitzvah entail, and what are some of the benefits we reap from it?
Torah authorities tell us that there are two main components of this mitzvah. First, we must take care of the needs of the ill person. This entails making sure that their health is looked after, and that they have adequate food and clothing. The Talmud recounts a story of the great Rabbi Akiva, who visited a sick student and took care to clean the room of its dust. This helped the student to recover. Furthermore, often the extra effort can make a difference to a person’s recovery.
Second, we must daven for the ill person. When we plead with Hashem, he recognises that the fate of the ill person is in divine hands, and thereby invokes divine compassion. Our rabbis teach us that as Hashem, so-to-speak, visits the sick, the divine presence is more concentrated above the bed of the ill person, and therefore it’s particularly powerful to daven in their room.
Those who perform this mitzvah acquire four main benefits.
In Parshas Vayeira, our rabbis teach that Hashem visited Abraham after his bris. This means that one who practices bikkur cholim is in fact acting like Hashem, who is the epitome of kindness and love. This is a fulfilment of the mitzvah of walking in Hashem’s way.
Performance of this mitzvah on a regular basis also helps you to become a kinder and more considerate person as the classic work, the Sefer ha-Chinuch, explains it – a person is influenced by the activities he involves himself in.
The commentator, Kli Yakar, adds that visiting the sick reminds us of our mortality, which serves as a stimulus to improve our ways.
Rav Avigdor Miller says that when we see others with an illness absent in ourselves, we acquire an appreciation for the myriad kindnesses that Hashem performs daily with our bodies.
Hashem should bless us with health especially in these difficult times, and let us try, albeit from a distance, to fulfil this vital mitzvah.
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