‘Feeling like a Passover Pariah? You’re not alone!’
This was the kind of New York Times headline that immediately grabbed my attention. The author, Alyson Krueger, bravely stated her case: for all its joys of gathering, Passover Seders have a dark side to them too. For those who haven’t been invited or haven’t been able to ‘score’ an invite, Seder night can feel all too lonely.
It is not a new complaint in Jewish communal settings that our community is biased towards families—both nuclear and extended. Synagogues often scramble to recruit and cater to ‘young families’, the El Dorado of congregational life. Often assumptions are made about how we Jews celebrate our festivals and who we seat at our holiday tables. We pride ourselves on being LGBT-affirming, and certainly huge strides have been made in this area in the last few decades, but sometimes our blind spot lies simply in failing to see who is not invited to our holiday tables.
As a rabbi blessed with a happy family life, I must admit that this is my blind spot also. So overcome with excitement was I regarding the prospect of having a real home Seder in three years, that I too made assumptions about who has a place and who doesn’t. I planned for weeks and cooked in the late hours of the evening for days, carefully freezing my brisket and chicken soup. We set the table beautifully and had a magical Seder—with all the charm and sparkle of a Chasidic pastiche. I was still buzzing on my Seder ‘high’ when Alyson Kreuger’s New York Times piece popped up in my Facebook newsfeed. The article is filled with poignant examples of Jews (often, new Jews, or Jews far away from family) who were not able to find a place in a home Seder.
One woman, named Pam, describes the socially akward dilemma as such:
“You have to do this thing where you tiptoe around it: ‘Oh, what are you doing? At your house? That sounds so fun!’” she said. “I have tried to get invited so many times. You have to remind people you don’t live near family.”
“It’s hard being vulnerable and doing that,” she added.”
The piece offers up an important social analysis:
“Those without family nearby, or who are recent converts to Judaism, often struggle with finding a seat at someone’s Seder table. They know they can go to communal or ticketed events, but signing up for an event doesn’t feel the same as being welcomed into a home. Some people want an invitation so badly that they are turning to social media to advertise their desire to attend a Seder and hopefully find their Passover match.”
The perennial challenge of finding one’s place in the Jewish community is not a new one, although COVID-19, and people’s very understandable hesitant negotiation of ‘COVID boundaries’, makes it a unique one these last few years. Still, the issue of hospitality, kindness and community is so ancient that the Torah itself records it in the Torah reading we just enjoyed. We read in Deuteronomy 16:11-12.
“V’samachta lifnei Adonai Eloheicha, ata, uvincha, uvitcha, v’avd’cha v’amat’cha v’haLevi asher b’sha’arecha v’ha’ger, v’hayatom v’ha’almanah asher b’kirb’cha bamakom asher yivchar Adonai Eloheicha leshaken shemo sham.
You shall rejoice before your God with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the [family of the] Levite in your communities, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst, at the place where your God will choose to establish the divine name.
V’zacharta ki eved haita b’mitzayim v’shamarta v’asita et hachukim ha’eleh.
Bear in mind that you were a slave in Egypt, and take care to obey these laws.”
The context amplifies the moral urgency of these two verses even more: Parashat Re’eh, from which the Pesach reading is taken, focuses a great deal on issues of justice, equity and access seen through the lens of the Exodus. There is Halakhah about debt remission, loans, tzedakah, creating an infrastructure for fighting poverty and sacred pathways of celebrating the holidays—of which many spring from what we might call our ‘Exodus consciousness.’ What is particularly striking is not just the grand sweep of the ethical imperative of these texts, but actually is their minutiae: ‘v’samachta’—‘you shall rejoice’. We are commanded to ‘rejoice in our festivals’ but why is joy codified to this degree? (And can we even command emotions such as joy and love? The Torah certainly seems to think so).
The pasuk (verse) connects joy with relationship. We do not rejoice in isolation but with other people. Not unlike our contemporary Jewish community, the Torah seems invested in listing family first: children and other householders, like servants living on your domestic premises, as was the practice then. Yet, the Torah also transcends the emotional gravity well of family by specifying the Levite (a class of landless sacred officiants who would have no holdings of their own and were dependent on householders for support), the stranger (or refugee or immigrant), the orphan and the widow. These are all categories of people who are vulnerable in some way; those of us who are a little dispossessed; who are not easily slotted in comfortable categories of communal living. They are our ‘Passover Pariahs’.
Rashi, citing Midrash Tanchuma on Parashat Re’eh, brings a laser-focused teaching to this text:
“THE LEVITE THE STRANGER, THE FATHERLESS, THE WIDOW — these four are Mine, corresponding to four that are yours, viz., THY SON, THY DAUGHTER, THY MAN-SERVANT AND THY MAID-SERVANT; if you gladden Mine, I will gladden yours.”
There is a beautiful parallelism here: there are the ties that bind so naturally, so easily, but that can also lock us into complacency. These are the categories of people who are easy to love and who were are quick to host. Our family, our friends, our kinship groups. They already have a seat at the table. These, Rashi explains, are (already) ours. But, the other categories of people, who are harder to be mindful of, to whom we may develop blind spots to, who are vulnerable and perhaps a little lonely—these are God’s. God is their guarantor and God is unshakably firm in both the belief and the commandment that we should make a place at our tables for them. In fact, we were strangers in Egypt so that we would. And echoing the parallel of the Haggadah, in which we are told that ‘this is what God did for me’, the commandment to remember the stranger is given in the singular, addressed personally to each of us, written on the tablets of our hearts.
Yes; the Torah sets a bar—a high bar. And sometimes, we have to relearn the sacred art of hospitality and kindness, especially when a pandemic has made us rightfully nervous and jittery. But embedded within these verses are deep lessons of building community and profound methods of transforming and circumcising our own hearts. On this last day, when we recite Yizkor, we remember those who are with us and those who are not. We create a supernal, transcendental community of all Jews, and our Jewish-adjacent friends and loved ones, from those standing at Sinai to those dwelling in the Yeshivah la’Malah, in the Great Beyond, and together with Elijah, we bring them into our homes. So that we may truly build a world where no-one needs to feel like an outsider; and we are all granted the holy opportunity to learn and relearn these lessons, year after year, until we are all free.