Mah Nishtanah: How is this plague different?

Mah nishtanah ha-magefah ha-zot mi-kol ha-magefot! How different is this plague from all other plagues!

  1. For all other plagues took place long ago or far away. This plague is here and now.  
  2. For all other plagues in our lifetime there was an “us” and a “them.” This plague affects us all. 
  3. For all other plagues, real-time communication was a key problem. This plague comes at a time when information also spreads virally, for good and for ill.
  4. For all other plagues, we mentioned them at Seder. This year, we have to make Seder in the middle of the plague.

For each difference, there is a corresponding action:

  1. Accept that reality has changed. Reach out for emotional and spiritual support as you need it. Be patient and kind with yourself and others.  
  2. Reach out and strengthen (or form) a network of mutual support. We are all in this together and it will take every one of us to work our way through it in health and safety — emotional, mental, and spiritual as well as physical.  
  3. Use our ability to communicate long-distance and real-time to share emotional and practical support and verified information. Try not to contribute to the “infodemic” of misinformation, rumor, and disinformation.  
  4. See below.

Our world has been turned up-side down. We have lost the certainty of what’s happening next week, much less next month. It’s disorienting. Our ancestors responded to their suddenly-changed lives by complaining through the desert, occasionally refusing to follow rules, and longing for the way things used to be. We grieve for the ordinary lives we have lost, as well as for the death and suffering that this plague brings. We try to prepare for Pesach while mourning our lost expectations of what Seder would be like this year. 

Be patient; it will take time to adjust. Go easy on your expectations of yourself and others. Get outside into the sunshine, or at least stand at a window and breathe fresh air. Please be in touch if you want to talk. And be creative in your seder this year! Here are some new drashot (meanigful explanations) of our symbols:

  • Matzah: Represents both being unprepared (“they had no time to let their dough rise”) and responding creatively to novel situations. Even though we have been caught off guard, we will respond creatively and turn our Bread of Affliction into Bread of Freedom. 
  • Salt water (or vinegar in some Sephardic traditions): a mild disinfectant. We will take measures to protect ourselves. We don’t need zero risk — just keep it low enough not to overwhelm our healthcare system or our own immune systems.
  • The egg: The longer it’s cooked, the more rubbery it gets…under ordinary circumstances.  But under true adversity, cooked for 6 hours or overnight to make huevos haminados, the egg takes on beautiful colors and is soft and creamy. So we will endure the tough and rubbery times, trusting that we will turn this time to beauty and good when we can.
  • Maror: The bitter plants of the world are also among the most tenacious. Like horseradish, like dandelion, we will survive and even thrive in the face of adversity.
  • Karpas: Spring green. In my family, there was always a cold boiled potato to dip in salt water, along with parsley.  After I left home I learned that this was what Litvak (Lithuanian) Jews used for their ritual “hors d’oeuvre.” Who had anything green in March that far north?  Karpas reminds us of the importance of short supply chains and eating locally. 

May the Holy One of Blessing be a Presence you can feel when you are in need; and please be in touch if you are in need of a human ear. I hold you in my heart and pray that we will see each other face to face soon, and be able to offer hugs. Wishing you a zissen Peysach, a sweet Pesach, and a chag sameyach, a holiday of joy.   Zai gezunt! Be healthy!

Rabbi Debora S. Gordon