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Purim and Passover: A tale of two tables

Amy Hirshberg Lederman

The experience of celebrating Jewish holidays has been dramatically altered since the onset of the pandemic over a year ago. From solitary Passover seders to attending High Holiday services in our pajamas on Zoom, we have tried our best to stay connected to tradition despite the precautions and restrictions COVID has required.

A few weeks ago, we celebrated Purim, with many of us sitting at our kitchen tables Zooming a Megillah reading while nibbling on hamentashen and sipping schnapps.

The Megillah, Book of Esther 1:1-5, opens with King Ahashveros making an outlandishly lavish feast (mishteh, in Hebrew) for all of his officials, nobles, armies and servants, from the 127 provinces over which he reigned. It wasn’t just a one night affair, either, but a huge, elaborate and decadent festival which continued for 180 days!

The story goes on to tell us that the drunken King demanded his Queen, Vashti, to appear before him to show off her beauty (and who knows what else), but she refused. Her punishment was irrevocable banishment and the replacement by Esther, the most beautiful of all the maidens to come before the King.

The King then made Esther’s banquet – a “great feast” called the mishteh gadol – for his officers and servants. Rather than the mishteh described in the Megillah’s opening passages, Esther’s feast, by contrast, was much smaller and less opulent. (Esther 2:18)

This seeming contradiction was beautifully interpreted by a family friend, the late Dr. Arnold Schonfeld. Perhaps the Megillah is suggesting that it is not the number of people or the elaborate nature of how we entertain that defines the significance of an event, but the merit and value of those in attendance that give the event meaning.

This interpretation offers a lovely way to approach the holiday of Passover during the continuing challenges of this pandemic. While we may be cautiously optimistic about the future now that the vaccine is more readily available, we must still remain vigilant to protect the safety and health of those dear to us as well as the general public. The net result will mean that many, if not most, of our seders will still be extremely limited in terms of size, grandeur, and numbers of guests.

But, as the Megillah points out, we need not feel that less is less; rather, we can strive to create a seder table where less is actually more. More time to prepare, more conversation with meaning, and yes, an even more inclusive seder with people who under other circumstances would not ordinarily be inclined to attend.

We read in the Hagaddah about the four sons (although today we speak of the four children): the wise, the rebellious, the simple, and the one who is unable to ask. Over 60 years ago, the late Chasidic Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, wrote a seminal Passover letter that expanded the core purpose of the Seder: to find and invite the “fifth son” – any man or woman who is conspicuous by his or her absence from the Seder table.

This notion can inform us today by creating an awareness of who is not at the table. It can also inspire us to invite to our Seder any person – be it a stranger, friend, co-worker of family member – who, for whatever reason, has left the tradition or never felt a part of it. And oddly enough, COVID has made that not only easier but more natural.

Many of us will have Zoom seders for the second year in a row. But this year, let us not focus on what we have may have to forgo – the joy of serving our matzah ball soup in person or kvelling up close when the youngest child recites the four questions or finds the afikomen.

This year, let us instead focus on expanding our seders to include a “fifth child.” Let us employ the frustration, disappointment, and fear that COVID has caused as an impetus to bring others out of isolation and into our homes to be a part of the seder experience.

Because, if COVID has taught us anything, it is this: none of us should be forced to be alone, especially when we long to be a part of something meaningful and share our stories with others. As the Hagaddah itself proclaims: “Let all who are hungry, come and eat; all who are in need, come and celebrate the Passover with us.”

In this way, COVID can be a touchstone to inspire us to let all who are hungry for inclusion, partnership, sharing and relationship, whether near or far, be welcomed to join our seder table.