When the coronavirus first began to take root a little over a month ago, as organizers started canceling events, there were some memes going around that said Passover would be cancelled. And, for many who are used to traveling somewhere on Passover, it may seem like Passover was cancelled, or at least disrupted, with the rest of life.
But as I sat at the Seder alone, yet together with my family over Zoom, it occurred to me that the Passover Seder is the perfect antidote to the pandemic. Indeed, I understood why for centuries, Jews have done everything possible to hold a Passover seder under the most challenging conditions, facing far worse fates than we face now.
The Seder was given to us for moments like this.
What is the Passover Seder?
If you’ve never been to a seder, it’s more than just a celebratory holiday meal. It’s partly that, and also it’s more. We often describe it as a dinner where we tell the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. But if you look at the Hagaddah, the guiding book for the seder, you won’t find the story laid out there in a clear narrative. Much of the “story” is reading about how different rabbis interpreted the commandment to tell the story, and how they did so throughout history. We tell snippets of the story, we sing praises to God, and we eat specific foods that symbolize parts of the story.
The Seder is part prayer service, part storytelling, part reenactment, and part holiday meal. It is a ritual of rituals. The larger ritual of the Seder is comprised of specific rituals done in a specific sequence; each action has a distinct purpose and meaning.
Seder = Order
The word seder means order and this is crucial to the experience.
We are given explicit instructions for what to do, what foods to eat, and when to do everything.
From the very beginning, we are clear on the sequence of events and where we are headed. In fact, the very first thing we do at the seder is recite, usually by way of song, the “table of contents” of the evening. It’s as if we were setting out on a road trip and planning each stop along the way.
The Physical Component
Among the unique aspects of this holiday ritual, as we observe in the four questions, is the specific instruction on how to use our bodies during the seder. We specifically eat while reclining. No other holiday gives us such detail in terms of how to physically engage in the rituals of the day.
All of this relates to the purpose of the seder, which is not merely to tell the story, but to experience the feelings of redemption from slavery. One function of these rituals is that they create an embodied experience: the foods we eat, how we sit while eating them — this is a physical experience, not just a cognitive one. The seder is the highest level of learning.
But there’s another function here, and it’s particularly relevant to our circumstances this year, with the coronavirus pandemic looming.
The Seder is a Salve to the Nervous System
The various rituals of the seder, indeed the seder as a whole, is a salve to a nervous system under duress.
When we encounter stress, crisis, pandemics, or other disruptions, our sympathetic nervous system activates. This is the “fight or flight” mode, also known as the fear response. The opposite of this state is the parasympathetic nervous system, also called “rest and digest.”
When our sympathetic nervous system takes over, the primal part of our brain takes over and we lose access to the more evolved part of our brain that controls executive function and decision-making. We need specific guidance on the basics: what to do, when to do it, how to do it.
If you’ve ever experienced anxiety, or when your routine gets disrupted, you might notice that you grasp for control of everyone and everything around you. Maybe you start cleaning or organizing around your house. Creating order calms the nervous system.
You also might find that mindful physical movement and breathing will activate your parasympathetic nervous system, taking you out of fight-or-flight mode. Even laying on the floor or reclining back in a chair can facilitate this.
When fear arises, it’s crucial to get out of our minds and into our bodies. This is the first freedom — the freedom to get out of the fear.
This is what the seder does for us.
Creating Freedom Within
Rather than merely telling the story, which keeps us in the realm of the mind and intellect, we create a physical, embodied experience. Within a supportive structure of a clear order and direction, we find the freedom to relax back and rest.
The rituals of the seder ground us in something tangible, even — especially — in times of disruption. This is the power of all rituals, whether religious or secular.
From the original seder, performed under the darkness of the angel of death looming, through ages of pogroms and the Holocaust, to our present day Zoom seders in the age of coronavirus, the rituals of the seder give us structure, order, and grounding in our physical bodies, helping us shift our response from fear to freedom.