Stay-at-home orders may be disrupting our religious rituals, but we can’t lose faith.
I’m allergic to bitter herbs, so I know what it’s like not to have a “normal” Passover.
My family sits around the Passover Seder table, raising our glasses to down the second cup of wine before moving into the ritual eating portion of the night. Soon, we’ll be washing our hands (with a blessing!), eating matzah (finally!), eating maror, and making a sandwich of the two before eating the actual meal. This moment is the crux of the Seder — our religious obligation is fulfilled primarily by eating this unleavened bread and these bitter herbs to recall the exodus from Egypt in a physical way.
But for me, this moment is filled with an emotion there are no real words for. It’s fear mixed with sadness, longing, holiness, desperation, gratitude, and devotion.
Maror is a category of “bitter herbs” meant to remind us of the bitter lives of the Jewish slaves in Egypt. There are a few foods that can serve this purpose: horseradish, romaine lettuce, endives, and chicory. All of which I’m highly allergic to.
When I was a kid, my horseradish allergy wasn’t as bad as its since become. I only reacted to it in an airborne way when it was actually being grated, so when my mother would grate the root, I would head off on errands, proudly feeling like I had a special role in the preparation of the holiday. Over the years, my allergies worsened, and I couldn’t be around horseradish at all for an extended period of time. My family wouldn’t include it on the Seder plate and would only eat it at the allotted time, using the less-severe allergen of romaine lettuce as the visual cue for the Magid storytelling portion of the Seder. My romaine lettuce allergy was also not yet so bad — I could eat a small piece two nights a year and live to tell the tale.
Sort of. I wasn’t always fully aware of how to communicate my allergic responses to the adults in charge. I’d read in books that kids hated green vegetables, and I assumed that the reason was because they made people feel yucky. I would eat lettuce and wordlessly head to the couch to curl up, sharp pains, exhaustion, and dizziness coursing through my body. But it’s not that unusual for a kid with some wine in her system to lie down for a spell, so no one thought too much of it. As I got older, I learned to articulate my symptoms and discovered that they were absolutely not normal. Horrified, my parents instructed me to no longer eat the lettuce.
Then, one year, my body went into allergic shock from stress. My bad allergies got worse. On the eve of Passover, I found myself in an emergency room after eating an apple that had been in the same fridge as horseradish. That was the last time there was horseradish at our Seder.
What to do without this ritual? Jewish law preserves human life above all else, and one is forbidden to fulfill a commandment if it involves risking her life. That is at once comforting — God doesn’t want us to die because of His service — and difficult, because rituals are designed to be a way to connect, experience, and grow.
This year, people worldwide have had their rituals disrupted. Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all in a holy time of year, with Passover, Easter, and Ramadan intersecting with the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. Our religious practices look different this year. This Seder night, typically a night when families and friends gather to retell the story of the Jewish people’s founding, is now different from all other Seder nights. We’re meant to conduct the Seder with only the immediate members of our household. No travel to relatives in other states or countries, no gathering in the Passover programs hosted by hotels around the globe. Even local gatherings are forbidden, and many are planning to conduct the Seder virtually over Zoom or alone.
Even non-religious rituals have gone to the wayside: morning coffee runs, group exercise classes, date nights — the small moments that we take for granted. Life has been upended, but it’s in hard times that we need our rituals more than anything.
We’re faced with a choice: We can cling to the rituals and do our best to be “normal” despite the risks or we can acknowledge that things are different right now and adapt in order to preserve ourselves, our families, and our futures.
It’s a hard choice. That’s why we see so many people finding loopholes to avoid social distancing or blatantly disregarding the stay-at-home orders. I know this choice intimately. I want, more than anything, to be able to eat horseradish or lettuce on Seder night and partake in a ritual that has been with my people for centuries. I yearn to connect with God through this experience. I also hate being told “no.” I hate the reality that my body won’t comply with a simple function: eating a small piece of bitter herbs. I can’t stand the lack of control I have over my body’s reaction to an invisible poison that doesn’t affect most other people. On Seder night, I’m acutely reminded of my difference.
And yet, I’ve had to adapt. There’s no reason to put my life jeopardy for one small bite of lettuce. Doing this one ritual would mean never being able to do any others. There are long-term consequences to my short-term actions.
So I innovate and find other ways to connect. At my Seder, we divide the readings of why we eat matzah, maror, and (in the times of Temple), the Paschal lamb sacrifice. I read the maror portion and as I verbalize its meaning, I meditate on what bitterness feels like. I may not taste the bitter herbs in my mouth, but I feel a bitterness in my heart for my inability to do so; perhaps it is this bitterness the slaves felt, of not being free to do as they pleased. The pain I feel in my heart must be just as bitter as a bite of horseradish, I imagine. And then I lean in to the aspects of the Seder that I can do — telling the story of the exodus, eating matzah, singing the traditional songs. We’re not meant to dwell on the bitterness, but rather to celebrate the redemption and express gratitude and optimism for the future.
In this time, all of us must innovate and find new ways to access our rituals. Will a Seder alone feel as good as a Seder with others? Probably not. But is there a meaning you can find, a connection you can find to the ritual within its current limits? From experience, I can assure you that you can.
Many of us are already adapting to this new reality. We’re video chatting more and finding the time for faraway friendships we can’t always kindle with our regular work hours. We’re tapping into humility as we learn about people whose circumstances are graver than our own. We’re inventing new rituals for ourselves and our families, whether it’s relinquishing rules about screen time or learning how to bake fresh bread daily.
Is it the same? No. This moment is different from all other moments. Let’s take a cue from the Passover Seder and use that sentiment to figure out how we got here, and where we want to go.