The Four Questions are a cornerstone of our Passover seder, with Jewish families around the world querying: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
This year, another question could be, “Why is this seder different from all other seders?” although we all know the answer to that.
Over the past several weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has radically changed our lives. With schools, synagogues and most retail businesses shuttered, and with so many cities and states on lockdown, we all have been struggling to adjust to this abnormal state of living as best we can. Congregations and other Jewish organizations have done a yeoman’s job of getting classes, virtual meetups and even religious services online, but most of us are already sorely missing face-to-face interactions. Meeting friends for dinner. Going to a movie. Running into a neighbor at the market and being able to stop and chat.
We are going to feel the negative effects of social distancing even more keenly on Passover as we sit down at our dining room tables to retell the story of our ancestors’ redemption from slavery. Many of us, accustomed to hosting friends and families in our own homes for seder, or joining as guests at the tables of others, will instead be celebrating the holiday with just those members of our immediate family who live with us. Lots of us will be alone, asking the Four Questions of ourselves.
As distressing and heartbreaking as this sounds, it is imperative that we abide by the directives of our governor, city officials and rabbis and adhere to the social distancing mandates that hopefully will “flatten the curve” of the spread of COVID-19. On March 22, our Vaad Horabanim, the umbrella group representing Orthodox rabbis in Pittsburgh, issued clear and unambiguous directives for those in the community to invite no guests to their seders or Shabbat meals and to prevent guests, including the elderly and children, from coming to Pittsburgh from out of town to celebrate the holiday. The Vaad also directed that no one in Pittsburgh should leave the city to travel to another community for Passover or any other celebrations.
It is part of obligation of hatzalas nefesos (saving a life) for us to abide by these mandates, the rabbis said.
Twenty-seven local Jewish physicians endorsed “the medical necessity of the Va’ad instructions,” urging the community to comply.
We also urge the community to take these directives seriously and to make no exceptions. Cases of COVID-19 have already been confirmed in our local Jewish community, and quarantines of those individuals and their families are in place. Containment of the virus is possible, but only if we all play by the rules.
We know that the Jewish people will be particularly hard hit by this crisis, even if the spread of the disease to our community is minimized. The Jews are a communal people and removing the joy of being part of a physical community is going to be brutal. But to emerge from this pandemic intact and healthy, we must make the difficult sacrifice now of sheltering in place, even on Passover.
COVID-19 has been referred to as the 11th plague. Our ancestors were spared from the original 10 because of their faith in God. That faith can help us now as well, but, as our local Orthodox rabbis have said, it is essential we strictly follow health directives too. PJC