Central to Passover is the teaching from Deuteronomy, that it is incumbent upon us to tell our children that once upon a time “we were slaves in Egypt, and God brought us out of slavery with an outstretched hand, and with great signs and wonders.”
At some point in our personal past, parents or grandparents, aunts, uncles, or teachers introduced us to the mythic tale of Passover. Through story-telling, Seder rituals and a smorgasbord of culinary delights we were initiated into the Passover story. These multi-sensory practices were etched into our consciousness, leaving us with visceral memories of family and friends being brought together, each year at this time, to celebrate an ancient Jewish festival.
Given the powerful imprinting of Passover memories, so often just the sounds, smells, and din and clatter of families gathered together at Seders, evoke poignant recollections of recently-deceased and long-gone family members with whom we have shared Passover throughout the years. Because of this, at times a Seder night can be emotionally difficult, joyous and yet simultaneously bittersweet. This is especially so when there has been a recent death, and the absence of a beloved grandparent, parent or spouse is acutely felt.
As the Seder begins this year, one helpful practice to consider, is asking those present who else they want to invite to the Seder. Make time to go around the table mentioning those who could not be present – perhaps children attending university, or friends and family who have moved away – and symbolically inviting deceased parents and grandparents, and others to the Seder. Saying something like “I want to invite my mother, Rose, who taught me everything I knew about Pesach, and would be delighted to be here with all of us being here tonight” can add a depth dimension to one’s Seder.
In some cases, it might be helpful to leave an empty chair in honor of someone who has died. “Zayde Jack always led Seders for us, and since he cannot be here tonight, we want to remember his presence with this empty chair.” This practice can help turn mournful longing into a tender memory.
There is often a mistaken belief that if we give voice to missing someone who died, it will evoke sadness, or even tears. There is a tendency to want to smooth things over, ignoring the obvious elephant in the room, the unexpressed grief felt particularly if the death is recent. Reality is such that the opposite is true: by acknowledging the loss, naming our collective grief, we open our hearts to remembering the person who has died, with love and with an appreciation of their legacy. Doing this can be very healing.
Similarly, we again have a chance to remember loved ones, at the end of the week of Passover, as we prepare for Yizkor. Inherent to Jewish practice is the wisdom to remember deceased loved ones by saying the memorial prayers of Yizkor four times a year. At Yom Kippur, and in the last days of celebration of Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot, we reflect upon the lives of those who have died, honor their memory and attune to their souls in the world beyond.
This year, on the last day of Passover, it is traditional to light a Yizkor candle at home at sundown and to recite Yizkor prayers in synagogue the next day. Once again, we are given the chance to remember those who imparted to us the Passover story, those with whom we shared Seder foods and sang Passover songs over many years. Reflecting on the light of a Yizkor candle, provides opportunity to talk about deceased loved ones, share stories of their lives, and in so doing, acknowledge our loves, losses and the lasting legacy parents, grandparents, and others have left behind.
Throughout Passover, as you remember Bubby’s matzo ball soup, your father’s Dayenu melody, or how to set a Passover table with elegance, take the time to share recollections of a person’s life and legacy, bring their spirit alive, and acknowledge their role in teaching you Seder traditions and practices. Honor their role as progenitors for you of the tradition that taught how “we were slaves in Egypt, and God brought us out of slavery with an outstretched hand, and with great signs and wonders.”
The whole week of Passover is a perfect time to remember loved ones, to honor our ever-changing feelings of grief, and align with the spirit of the person who has died, holding close to our hearts the gifts and the legacy that he or she has left behind.