One of the issues that has been coming up again and again during phone calls with my community are people who will be on their own for the Seder this year due to the coronavirus.
“How can we do the Seder by ourselves?” they ask me. “Doesn’t it need to be done with family and guests?”
I have thought about this a lot, and would like to address their concerns by sharing an extraordinary conversation I had about 18 months ago. I happened to be in New York and bumped into a friend of mine, Rabbi YY Jacobson, a well-known inspirational speaker, at an engagement party.
There is an aspect of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe’s life that I feel is often overlooked. The Rebbe was incredibly down to earth, and, together with his late wife led a very simple life. I asked Rabbi Jacobson if he ever focuses on this particular aspect of the Rebbe’s greatness when he speaks to audiences – namely, that the Rebbe had no airs and graces at all, nor was he interested in the pomp and ceremony that is often the hallmark of other chassidic leaders.
“For example,” I asked Rabbi Jacobson, “do you ever tell audiences that in their 60 years of marriage, the Rebbe and his wife ate every Shabbos meal together on their own? No guests, no attendants, no public spectacle – just a married couple eating together. A man who had literally tens of thousands of people at his beck-and-call! What a powerful lesson!”
Rabbi Jacobson paused for a moment, and then smiled. “I’ve got one better for you,” he said. “A few weeks ago, I led a workshop for single mothers, and at the end of the session, I encouraged the women to ask any question that was on their mind. One of the ladies raised her hand, and this is what she asked me. It’s a crazy story.
“‘A few months ago,’ she said, ‘it was Pesach. My ex-husband and I went through a very difficult breakup and after years in court over our kids, we finally settled on a shared custody arrangement. This past Pesach, it was my turn; my children were coming to me for Seder and I was so excited. I changed over my home and prepared everything beautifully; it was going to be just me and the kids.’
“‘I was so happy that I told everyone: my family, my friends, my neighbors. Then, one hour before yom tov, I got a phone call from my ex. For some reason, the kids were not going to be coming. I almost fainted. I was also so ashamed. I could have called my parents or neighbors and gone to them for the Seder. But how could I do that? I had told everyone my kids were coming! Truth is, I did not have the energy to be with anyone. I felt completely and totally numb.
“‘So I did the Seder by myself. On my own. It was the worst and most bitter Seder I have ever had. I just sat there crying the whole way through. Weeping. It wasn’t Pesach. It was Tisha B’Av. The entire Seder took me 25 minutes.
“‘Rabbi Jacobson,’ she asked me, ‘did I do the right thing? Was it even a Seder? Because it did not feel like one.’”
Rabbi Jacobson told me – and, as a public speaker, I know exactly what he means – sometimes your most inspirational moments in a speech are not prepared. They are a gift from G-d. Right then and there, Rabbi Jacobson had such a moment.
“Lady,” he said, “in 1988 the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s wife died, and he was left on his own as they sadly had no children. She passed away in February, and two months later was Pesach. Every year, the Rebbe and his Rebbetzen had the Seder together, but this year he was on his own, totally by himself. Who would the Rebbe conduct the Seder with?”
“I recall that a young boy, Ari Halberstam – who was later tragically gunned down on the Brooklyn Bridge, in 1994 – approached the Rebbe after Maariv on the first night of Pesach and, on behalf of his mother, invited the Rebbe to his home for the Seder. Ari’s family lived at 706 Eastern Parkway, just one block away from ‘770.’
“The Rebbe smiled at Ari, and shook his head. He thanked him profusely, but told him he would be having the Seder in his private office.
“I was a yeshiva student at the time,” continued Rabbi Jacobson, “so I am a first-hand witness to this story. In fact, the Rebbe’s longstanding assistant Rabbi Leibel Groner offered to stay with the Rebbe, but the Rebbe sent him home to have the Seder with his wife and children.”
“And so, the great Lubavitcher Rebbe had the Seder on his own. Not one other person was present. He could have had his Seder with 100 people, 1,000 people, or 10,000 people. He was responsible for hundreds of thousands of people celebrating Pesach on Seder night – from Kathmandu to Alaska, from San Francisco to New Zealand. But he did the Seder on his own. He didn’t need anyone else to be close to G-d. He didn’t need adulation. He sat alone and relived the Exodus from Egypt.”
“My dear lady,” said Rabbi Jacobson, “if it was good enough for the Lubavitcher Rebbe to have the Seder on his own, trust me, your Seder was perfect!”
“I was only 15 at the time,” Rabbi Jacobson concluded, “and I felt sad that the Rebbe had nobody to be with for the Seder. Why did he not invite even one person to be with him? But today, after hearing your story, I may have discovered the answer – and it’s just a personal feeling. As a true Jewish leader, the Rebbe wished to empower all those souls who would need to do a Seder alone. He wanted them to know that their Seder was powerful, meaningful, and real. Jewish history and the Divine presence would dwell at their Seder just as it does at a Seder with many people.”
Over the past couple of weeks, as the coronavirus pandemic has escalated and the reality of our isolated situations has become ever more evident – this incredible and very moving story about the Lubavitcher Rebbe has been at the forefront of my mind.
This year, so many people – probably more people than at any other time in Jewish history – will be having the Seder on their own or without their families. All of our Seders will be diminished, and anxiety will be hovering in the air. All of us will be thinking to ourselves: “Is this really a proper Seder?”
I think Rabbi Jacobson’s story about the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1988 answers that question and eases any doubts we may have about our impending “depleted” experience. After all, “if it was good enough for the Lubavitcher Rebbe to have the Seder on his own, trust me, your Seder is going to be just perfect!”