More than three decades ago, when we were still residing in Brooklyn, I was sitting in shul shortly after Mussaf on Shabbos. At my table was a retired professor or maybe he was a college dean at the time. He was a widower and his children lived out of the area. Another person at the table asked whether he was having his Shabbos seudah that day at home, alone.
“I’m never alone; there is no such thing. Hashem is always with me,” he said.
I summoned up that memory a few days ago as I learned from a rabbi about people who are single, widowed, or alone and who generally join families in their communities for various yom tov meals, especially the Pesach Seder. There are many people in that situation in this and other communities. This year, there are obvious additional complications as Pesach arrives exactly at what may be the height of the pandemic here in the New York area. If ever there was a time for people to be apart, this is it.
So let me say a few things about this subject. First, I have a friend of many years who was never married and never had a family. In his early years, he would travel to family, sometimes in Israel and sometimes here in New York, for the Pesach Sedarim and sometimes for all of yom tov.
But then one year none of that worked out, he told me a few years ago, and he found himself alone at home for the Seder.
I was surprised that he allowed things to unfold in that manner, but he was surprised that I felt that way. He described how he set the table for one, with his Seder plate, the accouterments, the matzah, the cup of wine, and so on. He went to shul that night, and when he came home he held a full Seder. As prescribed by our sages in this type of case, the person involved asks the Mah Nishtanah and then goes ahead and answers the very questions that he asked moments earlier.
In that instance and in others that we were never aware of, though they definitely did take place, I suppose we really did not give it much thought, if any at all. But this year the approaching yom tov is very different.
Then there is the matter of davening at home, without a minyan and often by ourselves. Here in New York and other major metropolitan areas around the world, the daily minyan is very much a matter of fact. Now, though, for the next while, including Shabbos and the Pesach yom tov, we will be experiencing something new, memorable, and even historic.
I reached out earlier this week to my cousin and our columnist, the Chabad shliach in Bozeman, Montana, Rabbi Chaim Shaul Bruk. Chaim recently marked his 10th year out in Big Sky Country, and I asked him when the last time was that he had a minyan during the week in Bozeman for Shacharis.
“I think I had a minyan here once during the week over the last ten years,” Rabbi Chaim says. So in a way, I say to him, he has perfected the so-called involuntary art of davening three times daily without the possibility of a minyan. Those of us who daven easily and naturally with minyanim almost every day can look west for inspiration to a young man who was also forced to sacrifice tefillah b’tzibbur, albeit under different circumstances than what we are dealing with today.
“Going to shul is not like going to church,” Rabbi Bruk says. He adds that a person should be able to daven at home properly and that if one cannot daven correctly at home then it will not necessarily change much in shul. “Judaism is not exclusively found in shul; it is first and foremost in your heart.”
But then there is the matter of the usual pomp and camaraderie that the celebration of our yomim tovim has rightly encompassed. Many of us were looking forward to a festive three-day mini-marathon on the first days of yom tov. They will still be good days of the chag but they will be different than anything many have ever experienced before.
The rabbis I’ve spoken with these last few days say that many of the inquiries they are receiving are about people being together with others over yom tov. It is imperative that those who can be home absolutely stay in their own homes. But some of the rabbanim and doctors say that those who would otherwise be alone need to have their situations evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Those evaluations are complicated, with the paramount and pressing imperative to stem the tide of the spread of the virus, which can only be achieved by adhering to the protocols of strict social distancing. For many, that will mean being home — perhaps alone — for this year’s Seder.
In that vein, you may be familiar with the story about the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. He and his wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, did not have any children, and it was customary for them to have their Shabbos and yom tov meals together in their home on President Street in Crown Heights. In 1988, after the Rebbetzin passed away, it was the Rebbe’s custom, “prava,” to conduct his Pesach Seder alone, either at his home or in his office in 770, which became his de facto home after her passing.
It is important to note that the Rebbe — through his life’s work and his emissaries around the world all these years later — is responsible for hundreds of thousands of Jews the world over being together at Pesach Sedarim every year. That includes Chabad Houses all around the world as well as the largest Pesach Seder hosting up to 10,000 participants in Katmandu, Senegal, at the base of Mount Everest.
Those get-togethers are not happening this year, but the point is that despite laying the groundwork and orchestrating the means to bring Pesach to Jews — millions of Jews over the years — the Rebbe, after his wife’s passing, had his Pesach Seder alone.
Certainly, there would have been myriads of people who would have greatly welcomed the opportunity to host or at least join the Rebbe at the Pesach Seder during those few years that he was alone before his passing in 1994. There is an anecdote about one of his close assistants who offered to have the Seder with the Rebbe in that first year after the Rebbetzin passed away. However, the Rebbe insisted that the assistant go home to have the Seder with his own family.
So what about the man whose mission it was that all people the world over be at a festive and enjoyable Seder while he and his wife, and later he himself, sat alone? All we can say is that perhaps it was the power of that lone Seder that fueled and energized Pesach Sedarim around the world.
Now, because of the COVID-19 crisis, we are faced with the possibility that many single, widowed, or divorced people will have to be alone for yom tov. It will be challenging and even difficult for some, but there is a power in that aloneness that we cannot grasp or even define. Like that elderly man told us in shul 30 years ago when asked if he was going to be having his Shabbos seudah alone, “No, I’m never alone; Hashem is always with me.”