How Is This Passover Different from Other Passovers? Shabbat Pesach 2020

So – the dogs are insane with cabin fever, and the husband is occasionally grumpy. I’m tossing on the same clothes for days in a row. And I can’t even indulge in spaghetti when I’m feeling a little low.

How’s your stay-in-place Passover going so far?

Truth be told, we had a really nice dinner at our Seder-For-Two on Wednesday night. Don said it might be the best brisket I’ve ever made – though I’m attributing that to Murray Avenue Kosher and not to my cooking prowess. That, and my Grandmom Freda’s roasting pan.

There were just a few things that Grandmom wanted me to have. A beautiful but simple Star-of-David necklace set with mother-of-pearl. Every spiral notebook with the detailed instructions for every sweater she has every made for anyone, ever. A few recipes that even I could handle (I do the holiday cooking). And the old Comet aluminum roasting pan that she always used to make her holiday brisket.

It’s not a fancy pan. I looked up “Comet Aluminum” on line, and apparently there are some coveted, fancy collectors’ items that go back to the Depression or before. This isn’t one of them. It’s plain, it’s rectangular, and it’s big and deep enough to handle a good-sized brisket.

That’s all I ever use it for. It comes out during Pesach prep while we’re changing to the Passover dishes and stocking the fridge full of Temp-Tee cream cheese and chicken soup. It carries the memories of decades of Passover Seders through the generations of my family.

Granted, Grandmom Freda was the cook I’ll never be. Like her sewing, which was her profession, she cooked by feel and taste and experience. She knew when a dough was ready for rolling, and when an egg was cooked just long enough. She wrote recipes down for me that I wanted – but I always have had the feeling that she occasionally left out an ingredient or two, or changed the amounts just a little bit, so that nothing would ever taste exactly the same as it did at Grandmom Freda’s house.

That wonderful, stone-faced semi-detached home – what in Philadelphia they call a “twin” – is where I essentially grew up. Grandmom Freda and Grandpop Mike moved in when I was about two years old. It was the typical move to what were then the suburbs of Northeast Philly – the Jews and the Italians moving together from the south side of the city to a place where there was more privacy and a little front yard. I was there a lot – my dad was a government contractor and we were constantly moving for his work. So Grandmom and Grandpop’s house was really home.

Grandmom’s holiday meals were epic affairs with all the cousins and aunts and uncles – both actual relatives and close friends of theirs that we always called aunt and uncle. My grandmother’s rule was, “If there’s nothing left over, you didn’t make enough.” There was always plenty left over to take home.

Grandmom Freda was a modern woman for her time. But I have a feeling she’d draw the line at Seder by Zoom. She needed everyone physically with her – the noise, the laughter, the corny jokes, the aromas wafting from the kitchen.

That’s what made Passover for her – and for us. Her slightly battered Comet aluminum roasting pan is my reminder of what Passover ought to be – and will be, God willing, by next year.

I have no doubt that I have an idealized recollection of those meals. Surely, not all the matzah balls were floaters, and not every brisket was more tender and tasty than the last. Grandmom can’t always have been the perfect host. She had to have gotten tired and cranky at some point. But her unending love for us overshadows all of that in my memory.

Tired and cranky is what a lot of us are feeling these days, and there’s no way to sugar-coat that. The stay-in-place orders that led to long-distance Seders this week, and that have brought us together on Zoom every Friday night, are really getting old. As much of a blessing as it is to share Shabbat with those of you who are far from Altoona, it’s unsettling to not physically be with people every day, and to have our daily routines so rudely interrupted for the foreseeable future.

We are all trying so very, very hard. Carting bags of donations to the food bank. Home-schooling children. Trying to care for patients and clients while maintaining a safe distance from them. We want to put up a brave front and be the best of ourselves. Careful and cautious. And it’s utterly exhausting.

God knows that. In the special Torah portion that we read on the Sabbath during Pesach, we go back to the Book of Exodus and Moses’ plea to God to protect and support him and the Israelites as they depart Egypt and journey into the unknown.

God makes this pledge to Moses:

“I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name ‘Adonai.’ I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.”[1]

It’s a strange turn of phrase that. A teaching credited to Rabbi Ya’akov Mosheh Harlap, a beloved 20th-century teacher in Jerusalem, gives us this:

I will be gracious to whom I am gracious.” People generally get tired of helping others. If a person helps another person, the first time he does so gladly, but by the second or third time it becomes a burden to him. But with God, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious” – forever.[2]

The promise God makes is eternal, but it’s also conditional – only God decides who will receive Divine grace; Moses cannot demand it. And yet it seems to be the opposite for us. Our promises can only be made for the short span of our lives – but they are expected to be unconditional. We must be kind. We must be generous. We must respect the dignity of every human being. It is inherent in the covenant that Moses and the people have just accepted at Sinai on behalf of every single Jew of every single generation to come – including us.

No wonder we’re so tired. No wonder we mess up. No wonder we lose focus and our minds wander. No wonder that, even though we have all this time to fill up, we seem to get less done. We’re expected to do it all. And when the ties to each other are frayed as they are now, and when we feel like we’re doing all of this, all alone, it’s overwhelming.

I’m guessing Moses must have felt that, too, in that moment. I’m guessing God recognized what a huge burden that was. Just a few verses later, God comes down to Moses in a cloud. The Torah says Vayit-yatzev imo sham – that God actually stood with Moses at that moment. And God recited these words:

יְהוָֹה ׀ יְהֹוָה אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב־חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת: נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה

Adonai, Adonai! God, merciful and gracious; slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin.[3]

These are the words that we normally recite on the High Holy Days. But it’s no coincidence that we also recite them on Passover – and especially on this Passover. They are a reminder to us that no matter where we are, no matter how far away we are from home and those we love, no matter how tired we are, no matter how much we think we could or should be doing more – no matter what, God is gracious and merciful and forgiving.

And because Torah teaches us to follow God’s example, to walk in God’s footsteps – we, too, must be gracious and merciful and forgiving. Of ourselves.

God expects of us what we are physically, and emotionally, and spiritually, and financially, and intellectually able to give. We should expect no less of ourselves – but need not demand more.

So, yes, think of others during these days of Passover. But take care of yourselves.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.

©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Exodus 33:19

[2] Torah Gems Volume II Shemot, Vayikra, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, translated by Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1992), p. 221-222.

[3] Exodus 34:6-7.

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