Former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg were both remembered last night as Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff hosted a historic White House virtual seder, an event that saw thousands from around the world tuning in.
Rabbi Sharon Brous of LA’s ICAR synagogue led the seder and invoked the memory of the late chief rabbi, echoing his words in an aim to highlight the importance of gathering together, even if it must be virtually: “What turns the bread of affliction into the bread of freedom? The willingness to share it with others.”
And White House Special Council Abbe Gluck, who previously clerked for Justice Ginsburg, quoted the late justice from Ginsburg’s essay on the women of Passover: “While there is much light in today’s world there remains in our universe this harkening darkness, inhumanity spawned by ignorance and hate. The Passover story recalls to all of us, women and men, that with vision and action we can join hands with others of like kind, kindling lights along paths leading out of the terrifying darkness.”
“This is the second Passover in a row that we are celebrating virtually, and hopefully it’s the last,” Emhoff began in his opening sermon, with an added message encouraging the public to keep at social distancing and get vaccinated as soon as eligible.
Emhoff also spoke about parallels between the Passover story and the pandemic, saying that even in a crisis faith “can carry us across a sea of uncertainty,” and remarking that Pesach teaches us “the importance of leaving a chair for strangers who may not have anywhere else to go.”
“Passover is one of my favorite holidays,” Emhoff continued, sharing childhood memories of donning matching outfits with his siblings to go to his grandmother’s home for seder. He remembered fondly the “smell of the brisket, the gelatinous gefilte fish, which I still love today, especially with red horseradish.”
The evening included all the ritual elements. Various administration officials led specific portions, like Gluck going over the 10 plagues and Kamala Harris’ Deputy Chief of staff Michael Fuchs explaining the meaning of the matzah. The US’s national coordinator of the Covid 19 response, Jeff Zients, also gave an address, and students from DC’s Milton Gottesman Jewish day school took over the four questions and the singing of dayenu.
It was toward the end of the unprecedented seder that President Joe Biden, First Lady Jill Biden, and Vice President Harris each made unannounced visits. The vice president appeared alongside her husband, taking a moment to tease him about the aforementioned matching outfits, and spoke a bit about how she and Emhoff celebrate their own seders at home.
“Our family, like so many families, will celebrate the sacred holiday of Passover this weekend,” the VP said. She likened the Pesach story to continued fights for justice, which she said is a Jewish value. “We all deserve freedom. It’s our duty to fight for those who are not free. Let us commit once again to healing the world,” she concluded, invoking the Jewish idea of tikkun olam.
What turns the bread of affliction into the bread of freedom? The willingness to share it with others
First Lady Jill Biden reiterated those sentiments, saying, “Passover is a story of overcoming adversity and finding hope…this story is Jewish, but its message is universal.”
And Biden added that we enter this Pesach with “heavy hearts, but also with hope for the road ahead.” He noted how difficult it has been for grandparents to be separated from their grandchildren, for us to “bless the matzah over the screen, not side by side.”
But he ended on a message of optimism, saying “not only next year in Jerusalem, but next year in person, next year together.”
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