Entering Nissan, and Planning for Passover at Home

This year, most of us find ourselves home-bound as we approach Passover, following Governor Inslee's "Stay Home, Stay Healthy" order... a very different reality than we've encountered before in any of our lifetimes.

Tonight and tomorrow are Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the beginning of the first Hebrew month. The entry into Nissan marks that springtime is fully underway, and of course also signals that Passover is now a mere two weeks away.

This year, most of us find ourselves home-bound as we approach Passover, following Governor Inslee's "Stay Home, Stay Healthy" order... a very different reality than we've encountered before in any of our lifetimes.

Jokes about this Passover holiday have already begun to make the rounds on the internet. One suggests we use matza to replace toilet paper, another offers a new version of chad gadya ("then came a bat that bit the pangolin..."), and still another warns us not to let Elijah into our homes this year unless he can maintain appropriate social distance. All of this humor is a necessary release, a way for us to deal with the discomfort that accompanies the disruption of our normal rhythms and the pervasive feeling of uncertainty and fear we are experiencing in this moment.

On Rosh Chodesh, and also at the Passover Seder, the Psalms of Hallel are a central part of the traditional liturgy. The overriding themes of these Psalms (#113-118) are praise and thanksgiving, but if you read a little more closely into the text, you'll see that the praise and gratitude all come at the end of what seems like a big near-miss. [For example: "The bonds of death encompassed me... I came upon trouble and sorrow..." (Ps. 116:3), "You have delivered me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling (Ps. 116:8), "In distress I called on the Eternal" (Ps. 118:5).]

In its poetic and meandering way, Hallel has a story-line that goes something like this: "Once upon a time, I was really in trouble. I pleaded and made vows to God. And lo and behold, I survived the ordeal, and now it's my responsibility to praise and give thanks...."

While Hallel is recited on almost every Rosh Chodesh and Jewish holiday, its arc seems best suited for Pesach. The journey of our Israelite ancestors from slavery in Pharaoh's Egypt to freedom in the expanse of the wilderness mirrors -- on a collective level -- the same as the individual tale of salvation that's being recounted in Hallel. At Passover, we are the Hallel narrator who has survived the ordeal, and we give praise and offer thanks because we who are no longer slaves in Egypt have escaped and made it to the other side.

This Passover, however, we will also tell the story of the Exodus from a second, different vantage point. It's true that we are no longer slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt (dayeinu!), but we are very much inside the ongoing story of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, more than ever before in our lifetimes, we are calling out from within the pit, from the place of distress... from the middle of the story rather than from its end.

The truth is that we are in good company. For most generations of Jews over most of the centuries of Jewish history, the Passover story wasn't told as a "happily ever after" fairytale, but rather, as a lens for understanding ongoing oppression and danger. It is for this reason that the bitterness of the maror and the salt water of tears are paired with sweet charoset and green sprigs of new life... Passover represents both a celebration of where we are, and also a yearning for the next bit of redemption. The Exodus story of the past becomes our paradigm... promising that if only we open the door to Elijah -- that is, to generosity and hospitality, to the possibility of renewal, to hope in a better future -- then we can, in fact, bring about a world that is more free, more just, and closer to redeemed.

As we embark upon the month of Nissan this year, we move towards a Passover that will be utterly different from any other we have experienced. Instead of togetherness around large tables, we will each sit in our own homes. Some of us will use technology to facilitate a virtual seder together with friends and family from around the corner or around the world; others will celebrate with just the members of our immediate households (reminiscent of the Torah's command for each household to sacrifice a paschal lamb). Regardless, I hope that each of us will find ways to fulfill the central mitzvah -- of recounting the story of yetziat mitzrayim -- from both the finish line and also from within today's narrative.

As we pray in Birkat HaChodesh, the Blessing of the New Month: "May the new month of Nissan hold blessings for us and for all the people Israel. May God renew this month for us, for life and for peace, for joy and for gladness, for deliverance and for consolation." And may we -- like the author of the Hallel Psalms -- soon find ourselves at the end of our current ordeal, so that we can (continue to) praise and give thanks.  

Chodesh tov - wishing us all a month of Nissan filled with all that is good, and with the renewal of spring,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum