Dan Ornstein

At The Seder: Giving A Voice To the Voiceless

Each Passover season for the past twenty one years, the Jewish residents of our region’s group homes for developmentally disabled adults have been coming to our synagogue for a model Seder prior to the holiday.  They enter limping, shuffling, leaning on walkers, holding onto aides who help them in the door, or sitting listlessly in motorized wheel chairs that are more like high-tech gurneys.  Their faces are wide grins revealing dying teeth, glassy eyes that conceal awareness and emotion, lips and cheeks puckered prune-tight.  Some of them are wide awake in bodies that have always been asleep,  and some of them are asleep in bodies that are awake.

Our volunteers spend a long Sunday afternoon cooking, setting up our social hall, and serving between twenty five and thirty people and their overworked, underpaid aides.  Over the years I have learned that some of the residents have families who look after them, yet some of them were abandoned by loved ones or forgotten in the family shuffles caused by aging, physical distance and death years ago.  Their disabilities are a spectrum of severity, a variety of developmental delays and neuro-motor disorders such as cerebral palsy.  Still, they come to us, and from what their helpers tell me, our Seder is one of the highlights of their year.  We welcome everyone as they come through the door. We play music and sing, we tell the story of the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt, we eat a nice meal, we playfully search for the Afikoman, that last piece of matzah which completes the feast. We end with a rousing chorus of the traditional nursery rhyme, Khad Gadya, using goofy sounds for the song’s different characters:  the goat, the cat, the dog, the stick, the fire, the water, the ox, the butcher, even the angel of death and God who dwell in the recondite, silent realms of heaven.  We are a noisy bunch performing a boisterous narrative about redemption for people whose voices, literally and symbolically, are imprisoned or have been extinguished.

After this year’s Seder I admitted to myself that I do not fully understood our guests because I have not really listened to their voices. As much as I enjoy this annual event, I spend at best two hours a year with them, and for me those two hours are rushed and impelled by the need to do my job by running the program. It is too easy for me to slip into that condescending and simplistic assumption that I truly know these people we are hosting.  That is why I have recently begun to think about “Bill,”  a middle-aged man who came to our Seder for many years.  I remember nothing about him except his first name and that he had some kind of developmental or communication disorder.  “Bill” also had a huge smile and this trademark way of extending his hand to greet someone new.  I do not recall “Bill” ever saying a word, yet when we sang or played music, he would jump out of his seat, extend his right arm while bringing his left arm to his chest, and spin like a spinning top around the room.  Perhaps “Bill’s” behavior was frightening or alienating to some, but I now understand that it was also his voice:  his way of expressing his fierce joy at hearing music, being alive, and celebrating the holiday of freedom without worrying about others’ oppressive ideas about social nicety and conformity.

There is a Hasidic teaching that the Hebrew word for Passover – Pesakh– is actually a play on the Hebrew words Peh Sakh, a mouth that speaks.  The worst part of the slavery in Egypt was that the Israelites had no voice, for they were robbed of all power, all freedom of expression.   Only with the Exodus did they find that voice individually and collectively.  On Passover, we re-live the flight from slavery to freedom that is characterized by finding one’s Peh Sakh, one’s voice as a free person. Our guests from the group homes are trapped in bodies that do not work well, so in one sense they are  slaves whose voices are silenced, literally and spiritually. They do not have the capacities that we do to communicate with the world in a fully functional way.  They repeat the same phrases obsessively, at times forgetting what they said, at other times desperate to say more.  Many of them only moan,  whoop, or grunt, and some of them say nothing.  Yet in an entirely different sense, all of their sounds and movements are, like “Bill’s”, profound shouts of joy, cries of pain, and expressions of their sacred individuality as human beings demanding to be recognized.  They have forced me to remember that they will not be relegated to some congregation of the marginal that we pay attention to once a year, even though we do so out of the sincerest motives.  They are a part of our congregation, our family, our Jewish people, our human race. They demand a place at the Seder table because they are us and we are them.  We help each other to find the Peh Sakh  that makes all of us free.  With words, whistles, whoops and whirls we call out the ancient greeting found at the beginning of the Seder:  let all who are hungry come and eat;  let all who are in need come and celebrate Passover.

Best wishes to everyone for a happy, kosher and meaningful Passover.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. Check out his website at
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