I’m reminding myself, as much as anyone, that Elijah will join me — and all my family, ancestors, memories, and, for that matter, the Divine will be present at my table too.
I’m a law-abiding citizen. But this was so tempting: I was invited by a local family, by local singles, by out-of-town family. I’ve been on my own without flesh-and-blood human company (Zoom chats aren’t the same) for weeks. I’ve been missing being in groups, having Shabbat meals, sitting at a table, talking, eating, singing, and sharing divrei Torah, those seemingly not very momentous activities that are actually the glue that keep the week together. The challenges of flying solo not by choice have been magnified by this isolation, for me and many others. It can even endanger and destabilize people’s mental health, G-d forbid, leading to meltdowns. And here I was being given a chance: to spend seder and maybe even the following days with people; something that would keep me going for the upcoming weeks of isolation. Friends made cogent arguments for the right to make my own calculated choices and take care of my mental health. But in my head, I multiplied all the people who cheat on the guidelines by a million or 7 million — and the result unequivocally is numerous additional cases of coronavirus simultaneously flaring up 2 weeks after Pesach, with the incredible burden on the health system this entails. Those doctors and nurses and MDA volunteers, along with everyone else involved in the medical system, are working so hard under such stressful circumstances while I sit at home. The least I can do is not risk adding to their burden. With a sigh, I realized: seder alone it is. Now, resources have come out for the person who has to have seder on their own this year, with good ideas for navigating the challenge. I myself had the idea that people from around the world can send their love and a short dvar Torah for those alone this year to read online before chag or to print out and read during the seder. But I also want to share some other ideas with you, reader who is so sad at the thought of being alone on the first night of Pesach. I want to share some words with myself. Dear reader, you aren’t alone.
You aren’t alone because people around the world will be thinking of you. I want to invite everyone having seder with family to take a moment during the evening to think of all the people alone, as well as all the people too ill to attend any seder, and offer up a prayer for their mental and physical health, to collectively send them love across the miles.
You aren’t alone because you have inside you the memories of seders past, in which you were with people who invited you and cared about you. You carry those experiences, those conversations, those songs, within you still.
You aren’t alone because the souls of your ancestors who celebrated seder under all kinds of unimaginable conditions — exile, blood libels, pogroms, Holocaust — are with you and encouraging you.
You aren’t alone because the prophet Elijah attends every seder, no matter whose, and he will come knocking at yours too. (Never mind those jokes that after he’s visited hundreds of people we can’t let him in, for fear of catching something…). Hang out with him for a bit before he moves on.
You aren’t alone because the spirit of Pesach is with you, with the special light that is available on Yom Tov. The midrash (Bereshit Rabba 8:11) says,
Now why did G-d bless [Shabbat]? R. Berekhia and R. Dostai said: Because it has no partner. The first day of the week has the second, the third has the fourth, the fifth has the sixth, but Shabbat has no partner… R. Simeon b. Yohai taught: Shabbat said before the Holy Blessed One, “All have a partner, while I have no partner!” G-d said to her, “The Community of Israel is your partner!
It was comforting to know, reading this midrash, that Shabbat is my partner. I make things special for her sake, even if no one else is around. Thus too, I’d suggest, Pesach. If a friend came to visit us once a year, we would make an effort not to be sad or distracted that particular day, and make the most of our time together. Pesach wants and demands our full attention, our heart and soul. It says: “I can give you so much if you give yourself to me. So don’t be sad; don’t disappoint me; please enter into my rituals with joy.” When we let Shabbat and Yom Tov in as a real presence, spending time with them with simcha, they can fill up our empty places and hold us in their embrace.
You aren’t alone! Because G-d is sitting there with you. Lay out an extra chair for the Shechinah, the feminine divine, a loving mother who, when her children are exiled, is compelled to go with them, feels their pain. See her sitting compassionately with you and telling you: “Dear child, if you are alone, I am alone too. Let us alleviate each other’s solitude and keep each other company tonight.” Speak to G-d — try it, no one will be there to hear you, what do you care? G-d might just speak back.
And, lastly but so importantly — you aren’t alone because you are with you. Don’t you want to be with a person that you love — you? Hillel says in Pirkei Avot “If I am not for myself, who am I?” Cultivate a loving, respectful, joyful relationship with yourself. Then you will always be with someone whose company uplifts you.
Rabbi Pini Dunner has written about how the Lubavitcher Rebbe ztz”l, after his wife’s death, deliberately chose to have a solitary seder in his own home. Rabbi Dunner quotes Rabbi Y.Y. Jacobson, who told a woman devastated to have been forced to eat her seder alone: “Lady, if it was good enough for the Rebbe, trust me, your seder was perfect!” None of us can know what the Rebbe felt or did in his seclusion; but I imagine him sitting with G-d and with the spirit of Yom Tov, with the souls of the previous rebbes and of his wife z”l, being elevated and connecting to all of klal Yisrael. I hope the memory and spirit of the Rebbe will also strengthen all of us on Wednesday night.