Shabbat Shalom and welcome to the third streamed Shabbat morning service from the sanctuary at Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue.
This Shabbat is called Shabbat ha-Gadol – ‘The Great Sabbath’ – echoing, the reference to the ‘great’ day ahead proclaimed by the prophet Malachi, whose prophecy is read as the haftarah, the ‘concluding’ reading on the Shabbat before Pesach.
Pesach, the great festival that celebrates the Exodus of our ancestors from Egypt, begins this year on Wednesday evening. So, after this day of ceasing and rest, there will be just four days left to prepare for it: to clean out our kitchens, remove chameitz, leavened products – and if possible, donate our unused items to refugees – get matzah and the items we need for the Seder plate, and do some Pesach baking.
Well, that at least is the usual plan. But this year is not a usual year. Jews are a remembering people. We remember all the twists and turns of our journey over millennia. Everyone and every people across the world will remember this extraordinary year when the devastating coronavirus pandemic utterly disrupted our daily lives and our usual routines.
So, perhaps, many of us will not be able to get hold of matzah and our Seder plate will be sparer than usual.
And then, there is the Seder itself. ‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’ The opening words of the four questions traditionally recited by the youngest at the Seder will take on a very particular resonance this year. The shul’s gathering, which usually sees 80 people fill this sanctuary on the first evening of Pesach, like communal s’darim the world over has been cancelled. Families and friends, too, will not be sitting around the Seder table together.
Thank goodness for the wonders of technology, which will enable people who have access to it to gather together virtually. But let us spare a thought for those who don’t have laptops, smart phones and tablets, and wouldn’t know how to use them if they did – many of whom are also over 70 and alone in their homes.
Those of us who are able to gather virtually, could adopt the tradition of leaving a place empty at our table for the guest who is unable to join us, and pause during the Seder to think of them.
So, Pesach has not been cancelled – many people will be having a Seder, albeit, across the ether. In recent years a number of new items have been added to the Seder plate. So, alongside the karpas, a green vegetable, maror, bitter herb, charoset, a sticky, sweet concoction, beitzah, a roasted egg, and z’ro’a, a lamb bone – or vegetarian equivalent – we may also place other symbols to express our sense of solidarity with all those who are oppressed today and our commitment to tikkun olam, repair of the world. These include: an orange, as a beacon of the inclusion of LGBTQI people, shoe-laces to remember the plight of refugees, olives to acknowledge the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a red chilli to evoke the climate change emergency.
Our Seder plates will be very full. Can we find space for one more item? What symbol will we add to our Seder plate this year in recognition of the coronavirus pandemic? Maybe, just as we leave a place empty at the table to remind ourselves of those who are isolated in their homes, so we should leave an empty space on the Seder plate as a symbol of ‘social distancing’ and ‘self- isolation’, these new terms that actually represent real hardship and distress.
A unique Pesach experience awaits us – one I’m sure we hope will never be repeated. Meanwhile, it is Shabbat. One of the important lessons of the coronavirus crisis is that we must try to do whatever we can, each one of us, to extract as much joy as possible – despite the challenging circumstances we find ourselves in – out of each and every day. So, let us now enjoy, the gift of Shabbat.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
4 April 2020 – 10 Nisan 5780
Malachi 3:4-24. ↑