Mah Nishtanah? What is Different? What has Changed? (March 2021 KOL article)
Passover is coming. As usual, we will ask, “Mah Nishtanah? Why is this night different from all other nights?” But at our digital seders 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.
It has been about a year since the pandemic closed our Temple building and we moved so much of our Jewish lives online. Last March, we quickly reinvented Passover seders and learned to do them digitally for the first time. As we approach a second Pesach in this new environment, we can again 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 kid!)
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 70 different homes, heard digitally recorded shofar, consoled mourners in Zoom shivas, celebrated online B’nai Mitzvah, and learned together in Zoom rooms. 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.
“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. Pesach 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.
Karen, Judah, and Elisheva join me in wishing you a very happy Passover!
Rabbi David S. Widzer