A Zionist and a BDSer Walk into A Seder

This coming Passover, in addition to participating in the seder, a good deal of time will be spent around the table discussing domestic politics and world affairs. Reflecting on how the chasms in our society seemingly grow ever larger among so many different fault lines, some of us will even integrate our concerns about the state of the world into the seder itself. We will speak of the poor and the rich and those of color and those of, well, less color. We will speak of immigrants and refugees and of those who seek to build walls at our borders. We will speak of the gun advocates and the gun control advocates, the vaxxers and the anti-vaxxers,[1] and we will weigh in light of climate change and concerns for sustainability the environmental impact of the food we are eating and of the dishes we use. We will speak of MAGA and anti-MAGA,[2] as well as pro-Israel advocates and BDSers.[3] We will speak of atheist Jews, unaffiliated Jews, and Jews of denominations different than our own.

Let “All Who Are Hungry” Come and Eat?

With an infinite combination of traditional and contemporary readings and discussions, quite literally no two seders will look alike. Most of those seders, though, will still include in some fashion the recitation of the traditional words from the Haggadah, “Kol dichfin yeitei v’yechul ~ Let all who are hungry come and eat.” As we celebrate this Passover 5779/2019, though, I worry those words will ring hollow. That is to say, in contemplating as we so often do these days “our side” and “their side,” “us” and “them,” to what extent will “all” who are hungry be welcomed into our homes and our lives so that this Passover holiday can strengthen our people … rather than further drive us apart?

Maybe Not “All the Hungry” …?

By and large, we American Jews long ago ceased inviting the poor into our home, despite proclaiming, Let all who are hungry come and eat. In a powerful article written many years ago, Rabbi Josh Feigelson lamented, “We let the words (i.e., “all who are hungry”) affect our inner lives, but we rarely act them out in real time.” He adds, “we don’t search for hungry people to share the Pesach meal. Our empathy remains a work of imagination, its ethical impulse confined to the theater of the seder night.”[4] In other words: we are better at being self-righteous than we are at being truly righteous.

Though we recite the all who are hungry, we fear the implications of moving from theory to reality. “Suppose we take kol dichfin seriously,” Rabbi Feigelson writes, “and invite poor persons inside. What happens at the end of the night? How do we say, ‘Thanks for coming’ to someone who has no bed to go to in order to sleep? And if we do invite them to stay for the night, how do we make sense of the moment when we tell them they’ve worn out their welcome? Or even if they’re not homeless, but simply hungry, how do we justify not inviting them back whenever they need to come? On what moral basis can we do so?”

In 2019 “All the Hungry” … So Long as They Vote the Same Way I Do

In previous years we “only” left the poor, the hungry, and the misfit members of our family off the seder invitation list. This year we also exclude from all who are hungry those who might share different worldviews on the myriad issues over which American Jews battle like television pundits. In many ways, then, our seders will come to reflect not only a homogeneity among socio-economic status, but a socio-political echo chamber in which to break bread (or, matzoh as it were) with only those who will not challenge our thinking.

When those who “have” fail to care for those who “have less,” the Jewish people is made weaker. And when Jews serve as judge, jury and proverbial executioner of their fellow Jews because of those Jews’ differing stances on domestic politics and world affairs, the Jewish people is made further weaker. Practically all of us are guilty of snidely questioning the sanity – and the loyalty to America, to Israel or to Judaism – of those with whom we disagree, and our words about “those people” grow meaner by the day. Indeed, we often prove that we are better at being self-righteous than we are at being truly righteous.

After all, similar to what Rabbi Feigelson wonders with regard to the poor, perhaps we worry today that by inviting into our homes those on the “other side” of the aisle from us, we might be forced to ask: “What happens at the end of the night?” How do we genuinely say, ‘Thanks for coming’ to someone who has made us uncomfortable by challenging our assumptions and provoked us to think more critically about our natural positions? And if we do enjoy their company and begin to reconsider a previously held position, how do we make sense of the moment when we then need to disagree with those who were once on “our side”? Oy! Imagine instead a time when all Jews could wholeheartedly say to those with whom they disagree, “I see your point,” even if that sentence is followed by a polite negation such as, “however, I believe that …”! Imagine a time when all Jews even could genuinely listen to others without feeling a need to respond.

Empathy as a Core Seder Lesson

In addition to proclaiming Let all who are hungry come and eat, many of us will also read on Passover the ancient mandate of Rabban Gamliel: “In each generation, a person is obligated to see herself/himself as if s/he came out of Egypt.” We are obligated to put ourselves inside the heads and the hearts of our ancestors. We consider the depth of their fears and their pain in order to understand the breadth of their hopes and their dreams. In so doing, we too taste the bitterness of terrible slavery and we experience the profound joy of freedom.

The exercise is a healthy one: putting ourselves in the shoes of another in order to achieve empathy. Among so many other mitzvot, our Torah commands us time and again to remember that we were once strangers so that we will truly provide for the poor, the widow[5] and the orphan, the foreigner and all who are in need. The biblical and traditional obligations certainly speak of caring for our Jewish brothers and sisters first and foremost, as well as the non-Jewish community residing amongst the Jews. To this, our rabbis add the requirement of caring for those who are in need among the broader gentile community as well, mipnei darchei shalom: for the sake of peace. Put in the language of universalism, we bring peace to the world when we care for those who are not among our own people just as we care for our own; put in the language of particularism, by caring for the non-Jewish needy we further the prospects of physical safety for our own.

In placing ourselves inside the heads and hearts of our ancestors, we also ought to hear more loudly the voice of God who calls us not only to take care of all those who are in need, but to stand strong as a people. When, in particular, we are intentionally mindful of our obligation to love our (Jewish!) neighbors as ourselves and when we do not stand idly by while our (Jewish!) neighbor bleeds, we might truly regain the sense of Am (nationhood) that our ancestors knew: the feelings of peoplehood, of tribalism, of siblinghood that are necessary to sustain Jews and therefore Judaism.

As seder night comes around and we have sought to invite to our tables all who are hungry, we are given the opportunity to build bridges and thus to strengthen the Jewish people. When we invite to our tables all who are hungry, we are given the opportunity to listen, to learn, to understand … and perhaps even to grow.

What, then, are the predominant fears and hopes of the poor, the widow (and widower), the orphan and the foreigner among us? What, then, are the prevailing fears and hopes of the rich, and those of color and those of less color? What factors truly shape the heads and hearts of the immigrants and refugees and of those who seek to build walls at our borders? What about the fears and the hopes of the gun advocates and the gun control advocates, the vaxxers and the anti-vaxxers, and those on either side of the climate change and sustainability debate? How about those who are MAGA and anti-MAGA? What are the fears and the hopes that drive those who are pro-Israel advocates as well as those who are BDSers? And what about the atheist Jews, unaffiliated Jews, and Jews of denominations different than our own?

Taking Positive Steps to Strengthen the Jewish People

When we are able to take a true look inside the heads and hearts of those on the “other side” from us – and when we are able to take a true look inside our own heads and hearts as well – we begin to again see other as humans, as fellow Jews, and as walking companions along life’s path. When we listen and when we reflect, we begin to empathize. We take one giant step on the road to being able to say, “I hear your point,” even if that statement is followed by a respectful, “however.” And this exercise is best achieved by inviting into our homes those who may not necessarily agree with us. This advance in civility[6] is furthered by letting everyone who is hungry come and eat.

If on seder night we fail to take seriously Let all who are hungry come and eat – if our seder is theater rather than applied religion and our stubborn commitment to self-righteousness is emphasized over true righteousness – then we will further water down one of the most powerful events of the Jewish calendar. However, if we take seriously the mandate to let all who are hungry come and eat, and if we follow through on the obligation set forward by Rabban Gamliel to consider it as if we ourselves came forth out of Egypt, then we will instead gain a stronger commitment to our fellow Jews as a people and as a nation, a deeper understanding of what it means for all people to suffer oppression and deprivation, and, perhaps, a more profound faith in God’s nearness as well. In this way, the Passover seder will be concluded, “according to each traditional detail with all its laws and customs” that we might pray, “Pure One who dwells in high places, support Your people, countless in number. May you soon redeem all your People joyfully in Zion.”

Amen.

Questions for Your Seder Table:

  • As you think about your stances regarding American politics, what fears lead to your stances? What hopes do you have for America? From where do your fears and your hopes come?
  • If applicable, do think that your children and/or grandchildren share those same fears and those same hopes about America? Why or why not?
  • As you think about your stances regarding Israel, what fears lead to your stances? What hopes do you have for Israel? From where do your fears and your hopes come?
  • If applicable, do think that your children and/or grandchildren share those same fears and those same hopes about Israel? Why or why not?
  • What do you think Let all who are hungry come and eat should mean today?
  • What do you think Rabban Gamliel meant when he said that each of us what to imagine on seder night that we are coming out of Egypt?
  • Pick one of the opinion categories listed above with which you disagree, and try to explain the fears and the hopes that support that point of view.

 

[1] Vaxxers: those who vaccinate their children; anti-vaxxers: those who do not vaccinate their children.

[2] MAGA: Make America Great Again is the slogan used by President Donald Trump when he was running for office. In some ways MAGA is simply code for supporters of President Trump. Others perceive it to be a call for a return to the institutional racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. that elevated in the U.S. white, Christian, straight men.

[3] BDS: The call to boycott, divest and sanction most anything connected to the State of Israel.

[4] http://shma.com/2012/03/let-all-who-are-hungry-come-and-eat-really/

[5] The Bible speaks of widow because of the limitations placed on women in ancient society. Today we might say “widow or widower.”

[6] In most cases, Judaism requires civility of temperament. “Be among the disciples of Aaron,” we are taught, “loving peace and pursuing peace” (Pirkei Avot 1:12). In addition, we learn, “Who is wise? One who learns from all people” (Pirkei Avot 4:1).

About the Author
Aaron Starr is a rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan. A member of the Conservative Movement's Rabbinical Assembly and the Michigan Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Starr is a past president of the Rabbinical Assembly-Michigan Region and the Metropolitan Detroit's Board of Jewish Educators. Rabbi Starr is the author of the book, "Taste of Hebrew," and the article in Conservative Judaism, "Tradition vs. Modernity: The CJLS and Conservative Halakhah."
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