13 Nisan 5781

March 26, 2021

As we prepare for Passover tomorrow night, for this Shabbat, we read Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36). On the night of the first Passover, when the Children of Israel were still officially slaves in Egypt, God instructed the Hebrews to seclude themselves in their homes. They were even told to mark their doorways with the blood of the Passover sacrifice as a symbolic protective seal against the plague raging outside their door. In our Torah portion we read of the installation of the first priests who would be in charge of the Tabernacle service. They are taught how to perform all the sacrificial rituals and are initiated and anointed into their sacred status. Our Torah portion ends: “You shall not exit the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days, until the day arrives that your days of hallowing will be completed, for it will take seven days to load/fill your hands [with this commission]….You shall dwell at the opening of the Tent of Meeting day and night for these seven days. Be careful to guard – ush’martem – this commission from the Ever Present One so that you will not die. And Aaron and his sons did all the things that the Ever Present One had commanded at the hand of Moses.” (8:33; 35-36)

The priests are commanded to seclude themselves in the Tent of Meeting for an extended period of time – not for an evening, but for a full week. And they, too, must beware of leaving their quarters at the risk of death. But their seclusion is not really about securing protection from danger. It is for a different purpose than the Passover quarantine. The priests are commanded to self-quarantine so as to “fill their hands” with holiness. They are isolated from the rest of the world so as to saturate themselves with a sense of a different dimension, a dimension of pure service. This seclusion will be transformative rather than protective. 

Mah Nishtanah? What is Different? What has Changed? (Inspired by my colleague, Rabbi David Widzer, Temple B’nai Shalom, Fairfax Station, VA) At our Passover Seders this year, as usual, we will ask, “Mah Nishtanah? Why is this night different from all other nights?” But at our digital sedarim this year, we might get these unusual answers:

On all other nights, we never have screens at the table. On this night, a screen occupies the place of honor, centrally located so everyone can be seen.

On all other nights, we talk jumbled on top of each other and think little about when to speak and when to be silent. On this night, we talk one by one and make sure to unmute.

On all other nights, we care little for what is behind us when we sit at the table. On this night, we carefully curate our background to make sure it presents the right image.

On all other nights, we eat only with whomever happens to be in the room with us. On this night, we can eat with family and friends from anywhere in the world.

On this second Passover in this new digital world, we can also ask, “Mah Nishtanah? What is different? What has changed from last year to this year?” 

Last year, most of us knew little about video conferencing or other technology. This year, many of us can Zoom and Google Meet, navigate breakout rooms and share screens, use Jamboards, Mentimeter, and Pear Decks, all with some familiarity if not expertise. (And if you don’t know what all those things are, no worries. Just ask the nearest child!)

Last year, we could never have imagined these new modes of Jewish living and learning. This year, we have created online interactive Purim shpiels, lit Chanukah candles together in different homes, heard digitally recorded sacred moments, consoled mourners in Zoom shivas, celebrated B’nai Mitzvah, both live and virtually; and learned together in Zoom rooms throughout the world. Judaism has been resilient throughout the centuries. We stand proudly in that same tradition of adaptation.

Last year, we might have scoffed at the idea of electronic modes of creating community. This year, we have played bingo and trivia games, shared simchas and sad times, and concluded our worship together each week by spreading our arms to reach across the digital divide and bless one another. It’s not a perfect way to create community, but we have learned how to foster true connections online. Last year, we went out from Egypt (Mitzrayim) into the strange new world of physical distancing, quarantine, and great uncertainty. This year, we celebrate our potential emergence from narrow places (mitzrayim) with the hopes of vaccines, schools reopening, and a return to the regular routines of life; our “Next” Normal.

Mah Nishtanah? What is different? What has changed?” We have, and the world around us. Through it all, we have found new ways to connect, new ways to engage in Jewish living and learning, and new answers to old questions. Passover comes this year with the same spirit of tradition and ritual, learning and celebration. And we will find ways to make it as meaningful as ever. May each of us experience a sacred Pesach!