Yechiel Shaffer
The Rabbi of Pikesville Jewish Congregation in MD

The Seder: An act of listening

Passover Dinner
Passover Dinner

One of the most important positions I hold in my Rabbinic profession is participating on the board of CHANA Baltimore, an organization that finds way to support spouses who find themselves in abusive relationships. As each of our communities have had to embrace social isolation, I have found myself thinking to the various discussions I have had with the professional and lay leadership of CHANA Baltimore. I have been amazed at the ability of this organization, and its people, to make someone in an abusive relationship feel less isolated. There are so many lessons to learn from their passion and dedication to those who are vulnerable.

As we sit down to the Sedarim this year, we will certainly notice the difference around the table. Whatever you may have hoped your Seder would look like, it will be hard to ignore the changes it has gone through. Even if you wanted to try and avoid the difficult news of the world, and try just to create a safe, inspiring space, one of the very first acts we take in reading the Haggadah is extending an invitation to “all those who are in need.”

Many ask each year, though the question becomes more challenging this year, why do we extend an invitation to the needy after we have already begun the ceremony? Why extend the invitation after we have already drunk the first cup of wine? There must be something else at stake.

Rabbi Jospeh B. Soloveitchik examines the mitzvah of Hachnassat Orchim, hosting guests by exploring how this value became so integrated into the Jewish makeup. Indeed, hospitality is one of the first values demonstrated in the Jewish story by Abraham and Sarah. The legend is that their tent was open on four sides so that they would be able to see guests arriving from any direction. This value left such an impression on their descendants, that each new couple that marries is wed under a ‘tent open in four directions,’ also known as a Chupah.

What was startling about Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality was that it wasn’t a global value at the time. If we examine the story of Sodom, we see that society generally viewed guests in a deeply sinister light and so Abraham and Sarah’s commitment to hosting guests was novel.

Rav Soloveitchik suggests that the act of hosting a guest is a gesture of recognizing the Divine spark in another human, and communicates a confident ability in the host to consider the perspective of someone else. The best hosts are those that facilitate conversation in their homes rather than lead the conversation. With this in mind the Mitzvah of hospitality is then really a great act of listening. A host who is absolutely confident of his or her beliefs, will not appreciate the perspective of another at their table and will ultimately be a poor host. Our tradition, begun millennia ago with Abraham and Sarah, is to be good listeners.

It is this value we begin with at the Seder.

While the instinct may be to talk, or to fill quiet space, in the invitation extended at the start of the Seder, we are making a statement that we will be actively and thoughtfully listening to the ideas and thoughts expressed at the Seder. We are impressionable and leaning in to it.

As we each struggle with the disappointment that comes with having to adjust our expectations for this Pesach, CHANA Baltimore’s work is a good model for us to consider. When a young newlywed couple stands under a Chupah, the tent of Abraham and Sarah, they each have, and share dreams for their future. When the relationship doesn’t develop in the way they had hoped, and one partner becomes abusive to the other, the isolation and sadness is often that which prevents the abused partner from leaving. When someone experiencing abuse turns to the amazing staff of CHANA Baltimore they are heard. The disappointment is softened by knowing there is a friendly, and interested person only a phone call away.

As we adjust to the Pesach that will be this year, be inspired by the dedication of the staff of CHANA Baltimore, and so many other incredible organizations across the country, supporting the vulnerable, to know that we are ready to connect with each other, we are receptive to each other, we are ready to become listeners.

Shema Yisrael HaShem Elokeynu Hashem Echad

Hear O Israel, God is our God, God is one.

About the Author
Formerly the Assistant Rabbi of Cong. Ohab Zedek in NYC, and The Hampton Synagogue, Rabbi Yechiel Shaffer is the Rabbi of the growing, young community, Pikesville Jewish Congregation, in Pikesville, MD.
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