Seder This Year is an Opportunity

By Rabbi Avi Killip

Seder this year holds tremendous loss, and we need to acknowledge that. Whatever your seder situation will be this year, it won’t be the seder you are used to and may long for. The situation is incredibly hard and sad, and this is an opportunity to create a unique and meaningful experience. Each of us will have to find what that opportunity is for ourselves. 

If this is your first time making a seder, you don’t need to worry about the choreography of what to do. The Haggadah will guide you step by step. Nobody remembers every detail of this complicated ritual, and every haggadah will give you detailed instructions: when to cover the matzah and when to lift the cup, when to open the door and when to read which paragraph. If you have little ones, don’t worry about keeping them engaged – the seder is an excellent curriculum. In a small setting, especially with just your own family, you have the chance to engage deeply with your children: Discuss their questions. Sing songs. They will learn a lot and enjoy themselves. And if they don’t, that’s okay too. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. 

This Is An Opportunity 

Make the seder your own this year. One of the main challenges of a seder leader is usually to ensure that everyone at the table remains engaged and participates in the ritual. This year we are mostly free from that burden. You have the rare chance to engage in the seder in the way that works for you. There is no shame or anxiety about what works for others. Do you have a family that usually reads only in English, and you wish they would slow down and wait for you to read the Hebrew? Now is your chance. Does your family skip sections you wish they would include? You can read everything. Does your family read through the seder liturgy quickly in Hebrew without stopping to translate or discuss? Now is your chance to move as slowly as you want. Stop and read from multiple Haggadot. Sing all the songs. Use this opportunity to experiment and do something you’ve never done. 

You Are Not Alone 

If you are worried you will feel lonely this year, know that you are not alone. Pedagogy of Partnership founders Orit Kent and Allison Cook teach us that all learning is a triangular conversation between you, your fellow learner/s, and the text. Even those of us who will be doing seder solo in quarantine this year won’t be completely alone. We will have the text. This year, with the noise of other voices at our seder turned down, maybe even completely, we have a chance to turn up the sound of the haggadah text. We can pay more attention to the words, the images, and the messages and give the text a strong voice. We can seek to understand it more deeply, and then we can even challenge it. 

The seder ritual is a strong enough container to hold a solo seder, and certainly a small seder. You are not the first person in history to have seder alone. Rambam tells us that if you are doing a seder alone, you should ask the four questions to yourself: “If one is alone, he should ask himself: “Why is this night different?”

This is the first time we have experienced seder in the midst of a pandemic, but it is not the first time Jews have celebrated this holiday in a moment of danger and fear. We may never have seen a solo seder as something that might happen to us, but Maimonides did. Our seders this year will become a link in a chain of seder throughout Jewish history that offered Jews comfort and ritual in uncertain times. 

Harness the Power of Ritual 

Lean into the sensual, physical rituals of the seder (pun intended!). So much about the seder ritual centers on the physical sensations of the food. If you are able to get the traditional foods, this element of the ritual doesn’t have to be lost this year. The taste of the first matza in your mouth. The sharpness of the maror. The salt water tears. The sweetness of the charoset. Many meditation teachers lead “eating meditations.” The essence of these practices is to close your eyes, place the food in your mouth and really focus on every aspect of the experience: feel the texture of each bite and notice the way the taste changes over time, notice the smells. Let the tastes and smells evoke memories- happy and painful. Notice the physical sensations. Is leaning an element of freedom you can still enjoy? Allow the rituals to move you. 

Holiday rituals emphasize for us the ways that the year cycle and the life cycle intersect. Each year at the seder we read the same texts and engage in the same ritual, but our lives are different. The annual ritual magnifies the changes in our lives by showing us exactly what has shifted. We most notice our losses at seder time, and also we notice our joys – who died this past year? Who was born? Did I get a new job? Graduate from something? Learn a new skill? Suffer another kind of loss? This year, the differences from last year are enormous. Use the seder ritual as a time to take stock: What is different this year? What has been lost? And also, what is the same? What are our dreams for next year? 

Let the ritual be meaningful. If you find yourself making a seder for the first time, even if just for your family or yourself, I will give you my number one tip for leading rituals: Take it seriously. Ritual can be incredibly powerful and has the potential to be tremendously moving and even cathartic, if we let it. Resist the temptation to be sarcastic or belittling. Let people use the seder text and rituals as a way to process the trauma and anxiety and fear of the current moment. What does it feel like to be in a narrow place and to cry out for redemption? What do our tears taste like? How do we learn to combine the bitterness and the sweetness of life? How can spring give us new hope? The seder rituals offer us frameworks for the uncertain, chaotic moment that we desperately need. This year, we should embrace them as fully as possible. 

Rabbi Avi Killip is VP of Strategy and Programs at Hadar Institute.