By Rabbi Levi Greenberg
Wednesday evening begins the best-known Jewish holiday, Passover, commemorating the Israelite redemption from Egyptian slavery 3,332 years ago. The festival’s traditions, rituals and recipes are so unique that for thousands of years the Passover dinner, called the Seder, features four questions traditionally asked by the children, starting with “What makes this night different from all other nights?”
This year, Passover will be different from all other Seders in living history because even while we live in a free society, we must all celebrate the festival alone. For most it will be the first time they are not celebrating the Seder together with extended family or community, and for many it will be a night spent alone.
Here in El Paso we are preparing for this strange reality by ensuring that Jews from all walks of life have what they need to observe the Seder at home. But at the same time, so many are asking: Is it even possible to truly celebrate in the midst of such an unfamiliar and frightening crisis?
Passover in a concentration camp
My wife Shainy’s grandmother, Mrs. Itu Lustig (“Bubbe Lustig” to all her grandchildren and great-grandchildren), was 15 years old when her father, the town rabbi, was taken away by the Nazis just before Passover, 1944. That Passover she and her family celebrated the Seder for the first time without their father. Just a week later the Nazis rounded up her community, forced them to relocate into a nearby ghetto and eventually sent them all to the concentration camps.
Bubbe was in Bergen-Belsen in April 1945. She learned that Passover was dawning when she overheard several Jewish men shouting through the barbed wire fence to the women’s camp that Passover would begin in the evening.
That night, the Nazi guards fed them bread, but she and many other women resisted the urge to eat the life-saving food, because leaven on Passover is forbidden. To this day she remains proud of that Passover moment and grateful that the accursed Nazis served them no more bread for the duration of Passover. She was liberated a month later.
Bubbe is more than 90 years old and, due to the coronavirus, has been living in isolation for over a month now at her Brooklyn home. This year, she will be celebrating the Seder alone for the first time in her life. Speaking with her Tuesday morning I could tell she was sad about the situation but I was inspired by her ironclad determination to have a joyful and meaningful Seder.
“It will be different and who knows what will be tomorrow, but I have my faith and trust in G-d and I will have a joyous festival no matter what,” she said.
A Jewish tradition, but a universal message
Matzah, the traditional unleavened Passover bread, is called the “Bread of Faith.” When the Israelites were redeemed from slavery they were unable to allow their dough to rise to prepare proper provisions for the road. With complete faith in G-d they followed Moses into the desert with a few unleavened Matzah crackers, confident that their needs would be provided for.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, often explained that this message is accessible to everyone, as every piece of our currency proclaims “In G-d We Trust.” While faith can be passive, trust is proactive and gives us the proper perspective to remain joyful and confident even during challenging times.
While Passover is uniquely Jewish, the life messages and inspiration we take from it are universal for all humanity.
Although we can’t celebrate together and the future seems so precarious, let’s absorb the message of Passover and be confident that as we carefully follow the social distancing guidelines, everything will certainly turn out for the best. That’s why holding a Seder this year is even more important than ever before.
Passover begins on the evening of Wednesday, April 8, and continues through the evening of April 16. The Seder is observed twice: Wednesday evening, April 8, and Thursday evening, April 9.
Please visit www.chabadelpaso.com/passover for all information you may need to have a Seder at home and please do not hesitate to reach out to us if you have any questions or need help preparing. Chabad Lubavitch of El Paso www.chabadelpaso.com, or call (915) 584-8218
Levi Greenberg is associate rabbi at Chabad Lubavitch in El Paso.
Cover photo: Rabbi Levi Greenberg reads the Haggadah, the text read at Passover seders to tell the story of the Exodus. (Justin Hamel/El Paso Matters)