“Mah nishtanah haPesah hazeh mikol HaPesahim–How different is this Pesah from all others!”
The last time I spent the seders with my parents was 1996, a month before my ordination from JTS. The last time we were in Toronto for a seder was 1977; I was in third grade. The only time in the interim that all of my siblings were together for a seder was in 1990, when my family from Israel came to Chicago around the time of my eldest niece’s Bat-Mitzvah.
Thirty-four years, seven more grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren later, we are together again for Pesah in Toronto–my sisters, our spouses and three of the grandchildren will converge on my parents’ home for the first days of Pesah. My father is very ill, and we don’t want to let this moment go by. So from across the ocean, a doctor left his community in the charges of others to come here. A CPA crammed in her work so she could travel on April 15. Two rabbis will be away from their congregations. Others will leave behind their jobs for a few extra days in order to be together.
When I arrived here last Friday, I found my father in a terribly weakened condition. As one by one, members of the family have arrived, we are noticing increased strength and alertness. Though the prognosis is not good, we see his response to our presence and our care.
Every week, my email message is related to the weekly Torah portion, but this week, given how different it already has been, I’ll depart from my usual custom. In Parshat Vayehi, at the end of Bereshit, Joseph is told, “‘Your father is ill.’ So he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. When Jacob was told, ‘Your son Joseph has come to see you,’ Israel summoned his strength and sat up in bed” (Genesis 48:1-2). The Etz Hayim commentary, based on the writings of Nahum Sarna, explained Jacob’s sitting up as coming “out of respect for the office that Joseph represented.” Maybe so. But the word vayit-hazek–“summoned his strength”–seems to indicate something more. Jacob did make an extra effort–the verb is reflexive–but the presence of his visitor inspired him, strengthened him as well.
It is this small piece of Torah that keeps flashing in my mind every time I recall my dad’s reaction to the suggestion that we be here together for seders. He had already had a rough day, but now his face lit up. Each day since, he’s done a little more. Last night, we watched some hockey together. Since you know me, I don’t have to elaborate on what that meant.
So this will be an unforgettable Pesah. I pray that we all have seders to remember.