Rabbi Lief’s Message April 2017

A Seat at the Table

Perhaps you and I share a Passover memory of being relegated to the “kiddie table” during the family seder.  In our family, the seder rotated through the homes of my father and his two brothers.  At my Uncle Peter’s house, there wasn’t enough room at the dining room table for everyone, so my sister, our two cousins, and I sat at a separate table for Pesach.  While we were certainly in the same room as everyone else, we were, without a doubt, not part of what was going on.  We performed the Four Questions when called upon, but other than the occasional wise-crack from the grown-ups about our status, we existed in our own private world: looking in, but not included.  There were, of course, advantages to sitting apart from our parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents.  We had our own inside jokes at their expense, there were very few reminders about table manners and posture, and I didn’t have to eat any of my asparagus, pushing it instead onto my sister’s plate.  At the same time, having traveled from different places to come together for the seder, we were not together at all.  I remember feeling that the spirit of Passover as a celebration of family and unity was not as powerful as in those other years when we all sat at one big table together.  Even on a folding chair, a seat at the table meant inclusion; not only in our family and our seder, but in the larger commemoration of our people’s Exodus from Egypt.

It is amazing how powerful a sense of inclusion can be for someone who perceives herself as an outsider.  It can be transformative to be the one who extends the invitation.  In our Haggadah, we open our retelling of the Passover story with the famous lines: “Ha lachma anya, di-achalu avahatana b’arah d’mitzrayim.  Kol dichfin yeitei v’yeichul.  Kol ditzrich yeitei v’yifsach.”  “This is the bread of affliction, which our ancestors ate in the Land of Egypt.  Let all who are hungry come and eat.  Let all who are in need come and celebrate the Passover.”  I know what you’re thinking, “Hold on, Rabbi Lief, Exodus 12:43 clearly states that the outsider can’t eat the Passover.”  True enough, and the major commentators all go to great lengths to explain that the invitation is not really to all “in need” but rather to all those Jews who still need to fulfill the mitzvah of Pesach and haven’t yet done so.  Why, then, does Exodus 12 continue on to make exceptions to its own rule?  Non-Jewish slaves can eat the Pesach if they’re circumcised, even strangers can eat of it if they are circumcised.  In the end, while no uncircumcised male can eat the Pesach, all those who are, Jewish or not, are welcome to eat.  “There shall be one law for the citizen and the stranger who dwells among you,” so concludes Exodus 12:49.

The issue, then, is not who is a Jew and who is not, who is welcome and who is excluded.  It is not about membership in the community, but rather about the desire to be a member of the community.  Who would like to participate, we ask, and then we welcome those people in; not requiring them to become Jewish in order to do so.  In our community and across the American Jewish landscape, we find countless individuals who are not Jewish, but who participate as members of Jewish families and homes, who support the raising of their children and grandchildren as Jews, who do not claim to be Jewish but who, nevertheless, desire to participate in Jewish life.  What should we say to them at this season or at any season of the year?  Certainly, Judaism is not a closed group and we welcome with open arms those who wish to become Jews by following the sacred path blazed by Ruth, and now well-trodden by the many who have followed behind her.  Become Jews, we say, and then we’ll welcome you.

What, though, of those who do not wish to become Jewish, but who would like to participate in the meaningful moments of the lives of their Jewish family members?  Do we exclude them along with their Jewish relatives who have strayed from the mainstream path?  Do we ignore them, including their Jewish family members but pretending that the non-Jewish spouses and children don’t exist?  I say no.  Not now, not ever.  We say to them, “Kol dichfin yeitei v’yeichul.  Kol ditzrich yeitei v’yifsach.”  “Let all who are hungry come and eat:” those who hunger for a sense of community, those who thirst for additional knowledge, and those who are starving for a sense of the spiritual; you are welcome here.  “Let all who are in need come and offer the Passover:” those who need to know that they’re needed, those who need to share the lives of their families, and those who need to be a part of something more than themselves; you are welcome here.  

Of course, in this day and age, we worry about security; thank God that we are blessed to live in Lafayette, a community that joins us in the belief that all should be free to worship as they so choose and to do so in peace.  I thank God as well for Kyle and the rest of our local police force who remain ever vigilant in protecting us.  Let us not give in to the fear of accidentally welcoming in someone who means us harm, for it will prevent us from finding meaning in our faith.  Similarly, while we welcome all to join us in celebration, the invitation we extend is to join us in doing what we do, not to encourage us to change and do something else!

At Passover, and throughout the year, let us throw open the doors to our homes, and in doing so transform them into sanctuaries: homes filled with love and acceptance, faith and family, happiness and hope.  We just might transform ourselves in the process as well.  When we open our doors, let us not search in vain for Elijah to herald the coming of a messiah.  Let us instead welcome in the stranger we find already there on the porch, and in doing so, we will bring about the messianic age of justice and peace.  Becca, Leah, Ellie, and I wish all of you, and all of your extended families, a very happy and healthy Passover this year.