The shortest seder I ever attended took place in a hospital room. It was also the most meaningful of any seder, and the most memorable.
In 2014, my younger daughter spent a week in the hospital for cardiac surgery. Smack dab in the middle of her stay were the first two nights of Passover. My mind was miles from the thought of preparing my home for the holiday. I wasn’t sure that I would make it to any seder at all, and certainly I wouldn’t be hosting our family’s usual celebration of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt.
In other years, I’d have taken my daughters to the houses of our non-Jewish friends with boxes of cereal and half-finished loaves of bread. The day of the seder, they’d sit cross-legged on the floor, crumbling sheet after sheet of matzah into big bowls for everyone’s favorite stuffing. My older daughter would slice carrots for the soup, and my younger daughter would stand on a stool and help me crack eggs into a bowl for kugels and matzah balls. Our house would buzz with activity and delicious smells.
That year, though, I made plans for my husband and older daughter to go a friend’s house for the first seder. I’d excused myself from preparing a thing for Passover; I figured that I had a good reason to exempt all of us from dealing with all of that hassle. There were two boxes of matzah from the previous year in the cupboard, and I didn’t even know when we’d all be home together. I didn’t know if I’d eat hametz during that week, but it seemed a decision too heavy to consider from the side of my daughter’s hospital bed.
But it tugged at me, Passover.
An aunt called me the day before the first seder and said she was coming to visit us in the hospital. “What can I bring you?” she asked.
I asked her to check the back of a box of matzah to see if it fit the dietary restrictions that my daughter needed to follow after her surgery, and it did. I asked her to bring us some.
That night, after my husband left for home and the first night’s seder, I looked sadly at my uncomfortable, medicated daughter. I wanted most of all to whisk her away into the arms of our friends around that seder table—to remove all the wires, tubes, and monitors, to forget the medical dietary restrictions and the incision in her back, and to erase the pain of the last few days. I wanted this to be over. I wanted her to be delivered from her misery into freedom.
“We’re having a seder,” I announced.
She looked up at me with questioning eyes.
I ordered slices of cheese from the hospital cafeteria and fixed her several sheets of cheese-topped matzah from the box my aunt brought. I put them on her tray, sat her up a little higher in bed, and asked her, “What is the story of Passover?”
Haltingly, she told the story between nibbles of our seder meal and beeps from her IV. A nurse came by, and together my daughter and I explained why we eat matzah. And then, with all of my daughter’s energy spent, I brushed the crumbs from her sheets and found the movie “The Prince of Egypt” on Netflix. Instead of sitting on the other side of the room and watching monitors while she dozed in and out of yet another movie, I pulled the room’s reclining chair alongside the bed, took my daughter’s hand, and watched along with her.
It wasn’t a traditional seder. We had no four questions, no wine, no haroset. No one brought steaming bowls of soup or airy sponge cake, and there was no search for the afikomen. I missed my husband and my older daughter with a fierceness that only grew when they took a break from their own seder to FaceTime us there in the hospital. But somehow, I felt more deeply connected to the message of Passover in that hospital room eating plain matzah and watching the story animated on screen than I ever expected to feel.
At the end of the film, a fully orchestrated song called “When You Believe” breaks briefly into a simple melody sung by a single child. As it should be, the melody is the beginning of the Mi Chamocha prayer, one which celebrates the moment of crossing the Red Sea. It is a miracle that they are there, that they have survived. All that is familiar—all that is home—is lost to them. They are beginning the long journey of wandering in the desert to a place they have never seen. Still, they rejoice.
As the melody rang out in our hospital room, my eyes welled up with tears. My daughter and I crossed the Red Sea, together, alone in that room, and though her eyes were drifting closed, I knew how important it had been for both of us to observe Passover at that most unusual of seder tables.