Seder night alone. It brings up many feelings, few of them positive. Passover night is usually a time of family gatherings. Of togetherness. But this Passover will be different from all other Passovers as we are separated, performing the rituals of nationhood and togetherness by ourselves or with our “isolation” family.
There is no doubt about the toll that isolation is taking on people’s mental health. The uncertainty of the situation, threat of the virus, weeks of being without support is now capped in our community by the idea of sitting down to the Passover seder without friends and family. The fears that have been brought out by these events are real and run the depth of the human experience.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Bhuddist monk says in his book Fear, “The first part of looking at our fear is just inviting it into our awareness without judgment. We just acknowledge gently that it is there. This brings a lot of relief already. Then, once our fear has calmed down, we can embrace it tenderly and look deeply into its roots, its sources.” He adds, “We may think that if we ignore our fears, they’ll go away. But if we bury worries and anxieties in our consciousness, they continue to affect us and bring us more sorrow.” (Thich Nat Hanh. Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm)
The Haggadah brings these fears to the front our consciousness at the very beginning of the seder in its formulation about the four sons. The Four Sons represent the four fears that are essential to the human experience. These fears have been made more palpable by the experience of this pandemic. The Four Fears are, fear of:
Powerlessness – The Wise One. A normal human reaction is to collect knowledge for empowerment. This can help us inform our actions, but for many it becomes a way of life. Fear of powerlessness can drive the never-ending workaholism to accumulate knowledge, degrees, expertise, influence, money, fame, as these can bring the illusion of control and protection. As a society, we need experts, so we answer the wise child with all the knowledge he or she seeks. But this seder night we bring this fear to the table and sit with it, as we now, more than ever, feel the weight of our lack of knowledge and control.
Thich Nhat Han explains, “We are very afraid of being powerless. But we have the power to look deeply at our fears, and then fear cannot control us. We can transform our fear. Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.” (Thich Nat Hanh. Fear of Silence)
Disconnection – The Evil One. Unfortunately many in our society are driven by feelings of disconnection. They feel disconnected from God or religion or community, and they gravitate towards extremist beliefs in an effort to compensate. They feel disconnected from others and so behave in a way that marginalizes people of different countries, races, or beliefs. Symptoms of disconnection have always plagued mankind, and are the cause of much loss and violence. This is why is it called “the Evil one” and we are told that the actions which stem from this fear need to be addressed directly. It is a forceful fear that will destroy our community if we let it take hold. Not that the person or the feeling needs to be cut off. On the contrary we must invite “it into our awareness without judgment” at the Seder so that “we can embrace it tenderly and look deeply into its roots.”
Loneliness – The Simple One. Most of us fear loneliness, it is the most simple fear. We are social beings and our connection with others gives our lives meaning. It is one major reason why isolation -- and contemplating a holiday alone -- is so distressing.
“What are we so afraid of? We may feel an inner void, a sense of isolation, of sorrow, of restlessness. We may feel desolate and unloved. We may feel that we lack something important. Some of these feelings are very old and have been with us always, underneath all our doing and our thinking. Having plenty of stimuli makes it easy for us to distract ourselves from what we’re feeling. But when there is silence, all these things present themselves clearly.” (Thich Nat Hanh. Fear of Silence)
Sitting alone is a difficult practice. Each person has his or her own work to do to escape their personal bondage. Perhaps though during this one night of sitting with our fear in simple acceptance, “we can embrace it tenderly and look deeply into its roots, its sources.”
Death – The One Who Cannot Even Ask. “All living beings want to live. All fear death,” (Thich Nat Hanh. Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm). The threat to our physical existence that the pandemic creates is real. We can analyze our fear of death as fear of annihilation or obscurity, of pain or the unknown, but ultimately non-existence is something about which we do not even know how ask. Passover night is the perfect night to contemplate the continuity of our existence, our role in the passage of time and history, and the purpose and future of our lives.
This year the holiday will be different as we are forced into introspection celebrating separately from each other. But let us use the opportunity to examine the fears that are driving unhealthy or unhappy behaviors, and welcome them into our consciousness. After all, “in each and every generation, a person is obligated to regard himself as though he actually left Egypt." (Exodus 13:8). With this acknowledgment and acceptance of the fear brought out by this unusual period, we can take a step towards freeing ourselves from our own personal bondage.
Like our ancestors who left Egypt, we cannot know what the world will look like after this event. However, we can use this time of uncertainty and rebirth to face the fears that hold us, and step into the aftermath with increased self-knowledge and acceptance.