Last year, Pesach arrived during a period of great fear, isolation, and anxiety at the onset of the pandemic. Our Seder tables were set for fewer places. For most of us, it may have been the first time celebrating the holiday without our extended families; the very grandparents and relatives who help us fulfill our obligation to remember (zachor), to teach our children the story of our enslavement in Egypt, and how God took us out of Mitzrayim.
In my own family, despite fewer Katzes around the table, we persisted with our own custom, that as we retell the story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt, each of us takes turns going around the table, sharing the ways we might be in our own personal Mitzrayim, and how we plan to escape its confines this year.
The Hebrew word for Egypt, in fact, is מצרים/mitzrayim. According to the Zohar, a text on Jewish mysticism, the name is derived from the word m’tzarim, meaning “narrow straits”. When God took us out of Mitzrayim, He extricated us from the place of constricted opportunities, tight control, and narrow-mindedness, where movement was severely limited. Yet, with faith in God, strength, and courage, the Israelites moved from עבדים(avadim ; slaves) to בני חורין(b'nei chorin ; free people).
With regard to this past year, I can think of no better word to conjure our experience. At various points, we have all existed in our own personal mitzrayim, our own narrow places, beset by fear, anxiety, isolation, illness, and grief. We remember to this day our beloved Coach Tony Sanders, whom we lost to the COVID pandemic last April. Members of our community who have been stricken with COVID are still feeling long term effects while others have suffered financially. I can’t think of a single person who hasn’t felt the social and psychological impacts of the pandemic.
And yet, while we as a country are not out of the woods, we are beginning to be able to imagine a world in which we are liberated from the plague of the COVID pandemic. As such, the precious gift of freedom resonates ever more strongly this year. Therefore, I encourage you to look to your Seder table with hope, even if you are still setting fewer places. If you have not yet adopted a custom such as mine around the table, I encourage you to do so - perhaps even let your children lead the way, or come up with their own new tradition that will last generations!
Above all else, let us remember that the Pesach Seder concludes with hope, as embodied by the words “בשנה הבאה בירושלים/ּB’shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim/Next Year in Jerusalem.” Even Chad Gadya, the last song of the Seder, which some interpret as a song of peril, ends with the Holy One slewing the Angel of Death.
May you and your families be blessed with continued good health. I wish you a joyous Pesach filled with the love of family and friends, both near and far.
Chag Kasher v’Sameach.