By CBSLA Staff

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) – The eight-day celebration of Passover began at sundown, affected by the coronavirus pandemic in multiple ways.

Rabbi Ilana Grinblat of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the vice president of community engagement for the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, said the Seders she will conduct “will reflect on the struggles of the pandemic in the past year and our hopes for a brighter future in the year to come.

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“The Passover ritual takes on a new and deeper meaning given the struggles that we have faced in the past year and are facing now,” Grinblat said.

When Rabbi Karen Bender, the Skirball Director of Spiritual Life for the Los Angeles Jewish Home in Reseda, met with residents this week for a spiritual exploration of Passover, they discussed “the Passover story as a metaphor (for) what we’ve gone through this year,” she said.

Bender said she compared the initial stage of the outbreak to Egypt, then asked residents where they saw themselves now.

“Every single one of them, in one way or another, talked about being on the other side of the parted sea,” Bender said. “One woman said, `We’re in the desert, but we’re still hungry,’ hungry for being able to gather freely, we’re hungry to have life be back to normal, but the desert is a good place because we’re heading in the direction of the promised land.”

Coronavirus-related restrictions are again prompting individuals to prepare to use such online platforms as Zoom to connect with families and friends who are unable due to attend their Seders, Passover’s ritual meal.

“Passover is known by many names, and one resonates a bit more this year: Chag Ha’Aviv — the Festival of Spring,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti tweeted on Saturday. “As the ice of this pandemic starts to melt, let us make this our season of rebirth, our time of renewal and embrace a future brimming with hope.”

Various congregations and organizations have organized virtual Seders and not just on the first two nights as is traditional.

The Los Angeles Jewish Home in Reseda customarily has a huge outdoor Seder, but for the second consecutive year, residents will remain in their rooms to watch a closed-circuit broadcast while eating foods associated with it.

Passover commemorates the time between the Exodus from Egypt on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Nissan and the parting of the Red Sea seven days later to allow the fleeing Israelites to make their getaway.

A number of contemporary scholars, including Jewish historians and archaeologists, believe the story of the Exodus is apocryphal and that the Israelites were never among the peoples subjugated by the ancient Egyptians.

However, regardless of any historical debate, most rabbis believe it should not obscure the themes — faith, freedom and redemption — inherent in the biblical tale.

According to the book of Exodus, the enslaved Israelites used the blood of lambs to mark their doors so the Angel of Death would “pass over” their homes and instead slay the firstborn sons of Egyptians — the 10th and most horrific of the plagues that finally persuaded the pharaoh to accede to Moses’ demand: “Let my people go.”

During the Seder, people drink four cups of wine or grape juice, symbolizing the promises that God made to the Israelites, including deliverance from bondage. Also as part of the ritual, a child traditionally asks the four questions of the Seder, which means order.

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The introductory question of “Why is this night different from all other nights?” is followed by “Why is it that on all other nights during the year we eat either bread or matzo, but on this night we eat matzo?” “Why is it that on all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables, but on this night we eat bitter herbs?” “Why is it on all other nights we do not dip even once, but on this night we dip twice?” and “Why is it that on all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining, but on this night we eat in a reclining position?”

The purpose of the questions is to spark discussion and learning, as teaching the story of the Exodus to children is one of the most important elements of the Seder. The meal is accompanied by reading from the Haggadah, or “narration” book, which tells the story of the Israelites’ deliverance from bondage.

The Seder features six symbolic foods, including matzo, a cracker-like unleavened bread symbolizing the Exodus from ancient Egypt when there was not enough time to let the bread rise.

While Passover rituals vary in different parts of the world, Jews are traditionally not permitted to eat or possess any foods made with wheat, barley, rye, spelt or oats.

Bitter herbs, often horseradish, represent the bitterness of slavery; parsley dipped in salt water symbolizes the tears the Israelites shed in bondage; and an apple, nut, spice and wine mixture called charoset represents what the Torah, the Jewish holy scripture, describes as the mortar used by Jewish slaves to build Egyptian edifices.

The holiday is observed for seven days in Israel, with one Seder, and eight days outside Israel, with two. The difference is that people in ancient times who lived far from Jerusalem could not know when a new month under the Hebrew lunar calendar had been officially declared and, in turn, could not be sure of the exact date.

In his Passover message, President Joe Biden said, “At its heart, the Passover story is one of overcoming adversity and finding hope, of summoning the resilience and resolve to emerge from a long dark night to a brighter morning.

“It’s a story of recognition that our own rights are bound up with the rights of our neighbors, and that none of us is free until all of us are free. It’s a story of faith, a reminder that even in the face of oppression, there is reason for hope.

“Though this celebration is Jewish, its message is universal. This year, it resonates anew for a generation that has seen a terrible virus leave empty chairs at too many of our nation’s tables, one that knows the oppression and injustice of our world all too well.

“This year, we need the Passover story and the hope it provides more than ever.

“As we close our Seders with the familiar refrain, `Next year in Jerusalem,’ we will now offer an additional prayer: `Next year in person. Next year, together.”‘

Rabbi Sharon Brous, founder of IKAR, which bills itself as a spiritual community and holds services at Shalhevet High School on Fairfax Avenue, just north of Olympic Boulevard, emceed the White House’s virtual Passover celebration Thursday.

Following comments by Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, who is Jewish, a video was played of children from IKAR saying “happy Passover” and “chag sameach,” Hebrew for happy holiday.

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