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A Solo Seder with Ushpizin

Letter to the Editor Published in the New York Jewish Week on March 29 2020

To the Editor-in-Chief of The Jewish Week, Andrew Silow-Carroll
From: Peninnah Schram

Dear Editor,

I enjoyed reading your Editor’s Column this week re the creative “Tips for a Virtual Seder”. 

My plans for being in Israel for Passover visiting with my children who live there had to be cancelled. I also decided not to risk traveling to share the joys of the seders to visit my children who live in a nearby state. Therefore, I was planning to have a ‘solo seder’ in my home in NYC.

One night, I had an epiphany: Why not borrow a custom from Sukkot and adapt it to another of the Pilgrimage Festivals, namely, Pesah. I would introduce inviting ‘ushpizin’ to my seder so that it would no longer be a ‘solo seder’ for me. Of course, they would be virtual guests – and we would sit with a respectful space from each other.

 Here is the list of biblical visitors I would invite – all who had experienced the Exodus from Egypt:

  1. Eliyahu haNavi, the Master of Miracles – whose wine cup would already be on the table – and who is a ubiquitous hero in our lives;
  2. Miriam haNeviya – whose water-well bowl/cup would also be already on the table – a woman who sings beautifully with a dancing heart;
  3. Moshe, Miriam’s youngest brother – who is the hero of the Exodus from Egypt by pleading our cause on behalf of the Jewish People (with some help, of course);
  4. Aharon, Miriam’s older brother and peace-maker extraordinaire – who should not feel left-out since he spoke in place of Moshe;
  5. Nachshon – who was the catalyst for the miracle-splitting of the Reed Sea – although maybe someone gave him a little push to get him to jump into the sea;
  6. Serach bat Asher – the granddaughter of Jacob. It was this wise child who understood how to reveal to her grandfather that his beloved son Joseph was alive in Egypt after all those years. Because of that, Jacob prayed that Serach should have the merit to live forever”- and G-d granted that request. Serach was also blessed with a phenomenal memory. So when she journeyed throughout the world for centuries (while growing older), she would listen to what people said. One time, she corrected Rabbi Yohanan’s description of the Israelites crossing the Reed Sea because she had been there and had witnessed everything. She needed to set the record straight. [Full disclosure: I love Serach bat Asher and have compiled several midrashim into a narrative, “Serach bat Asher: A Midrashic Monologue,” in Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning.

Now that I set my list of ‘ushpizin’ at my seder table, in addition to all the symbolic items on the Seder plate, I plan to have pomegranates and apples on the table, as a remembrance of how, as the Israelites crossed the dry path with the waters rising high like walls on both sides of the path, mothers plucked these fruits out of the waters for their children to eat.

I will welcome in my visitors by opening my door wide and we will share many stories and songs ‘together’. In fact, I believe that I will still be the ‘youngest’ person at the table so I will ask the four questions – and then as the ‘Maggid’ I will answer with telling the story. It will be a ‘solo’ seder in tandem with my marvelous guests.

Peninnah Schram
Professor Emerita, Yeshiva University
Storyteller and Author