The Seder – Creating our Virtual Reality
Most years on Pesach, I truly feel like a free person. As I celebrate surrounded by my family, in times of religious freedom in many places around the world and the flourishing Jewish state, I think of the times when והיא שעמדה, “This promise has stood for our forefathers and ourselves,” was stated as an affirmation of faith. It was a belief and prayer that better times were yet to come and not only a historical perspective on history.
But last year, my Leil HaSeder night experience felt different.
We weren’t under the harsh rule of a foreign ruler in a foreign land facing prejudice and persecution. Yet, we were faced with a different challenge, a global pandemic. So much uncertainty abounded with COVID-19. There was so much unknown about the disease and what lay ahead. Pesach came during the first lockdown here in Israel, and Seder night had the strictest rules that we had experienced yet, confining people inside their private homes and apartments. My husband and I celebrated Pesach with just our nuclear family, alone with our three small children, having had to cancel our plans to be with our parents, grandparents, and extended families in the United States.
That year, I wondered, can we truly feel free? Of course there was much to be grateful for, but we were also surrounded by fear, uncertainty, and restrictions.
I was acutely aware that I was not the first to feel this seeming contradiction. Jews in all sorts of circumstances and struggles throughout the ages have celebrated Pesach and attempted to fulfill the imperative “In each and every generation a person must view himself as though he personally left Egypt” (Pesachim 10:5).
How can we perceive ourselves as free? What if we are going through a difficult time or struggle that in some sense enslaves us?
When Rambam codified the Haggadah text, he famously changed the wording from לראות, view, to להראות, show:
And in each and every generation, a person is obligated to show himself as if he left Egypt (Mishneh Torah Leavened and Unleavened Bread 9:37)
Elsewhere Rambam spells out practically the obligations of the seder night that reflect one’s freedom: “In every generation, one must show himself as if he personally had come out from the subjugation of Egypt…Hence when a person eats on that night, he must eat and drink while he is reclining in the way of freedom. And each and every one – whether man or woman – is obligated to drink four cups of wine on this night” (Mishneh Torah Leavened and Unleavened Bread 7:6-7).
We might not always be free, but we can still create our reality, says the Rambam – show we are free. Our personal and communal circumstances do not matter; on this night we will act as free people. No matter the situation, our creativity, our rich narrative as the Jewish people, our ability to show, imagine, and recreate the experience will not be taken from us.
On the Seder night, we create our own virtual reality, both to recall our suffering with unleavened matza, bitter herbs and salt water, and to celebrate our freedom, through lavish four cups of wine, which we drink while reclining in the way of the wealthy of old times.
We relive the story of yetziat Mitzrayim in our present moment. We thereby remember that through the ups and downs of history, Hashem is on our side and ultimately redeems us.
Rambam teaches that though we can’t actually be there, we adjust our surroundings to reflect what it was like. We can act certain ways, surround ourselves by certain props,and tangibly feel, create, and achieve the religious experience we strive for. To a large extent, we transform our own realities and choose which narratives we engage in.
This took on a new meaning with the outbreak of COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders. Suddenly schools, shuls, and workplaces were shut, and family and friends were told to stay apart. Yet we have been given the gift of technology, allowing us to shape our experiences even from our own home. We built virtual communities, streaming media from all over the world. We engaged with others, shared ideas, did business, all virtually. With the world gone virtual, we could be anywhere and go anywhere – the San Diego Zoo, a Beit Midrash, virtual school, and workplaces. For the past year, we have been finding new pathways to connect with each other. It might not be exactly the same, but we can and we must still להראות. We elect to set this environment and the tone for ourselves. Let us create this environment and experience mindfully. We were and remain freed and grateful.