Removing The Glass Wall At The Seder Table©

Removing The Glass Wall At The Seder Table©
Vayikra/Leviticus 2017/5777
By Rabbi David Baum

I will have to admit, I suffered through a bad case of #FOMO last week - it’s not a medical condition - but Fear of Missing Out can create great anxiety.  Unfortunately, I could not attend this year’s AIPAC policy conference, but it is truly one of the wonders of the modern Jewish world.  For those who do not know, AIPAC stands for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its mission is to strengthen, protect and promote the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of the United States and Israel.  They are proudly bi-partisan, engaging both Democrats and Republicans, and every year, they have a policy conference in Washington DC where people gather to learn, engage, and lobby for strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship. 

This year was the largest gathering ever, 18,000 people who have one thing in common - they are pro-Israel.  It is also the largest gathering of rabbis from different denominations (around 750).  Of course, they also have many things not in common.  And that is what makes policy conference one of the wonders of the Jewish world - it can bring together Jews who disagree on so many other things.  We are in the age where there is an organization for every special interest group, and 100% agreement on all issues is almost mandatory - but not at AIPAC, and it can be best viewed by this year’s policy conference theme: Many Voices, One Mission. 

So there were 18,000 people inside, but there were also hundreds of Jews and others outside who were protesting.  Usually, the group who is outside are the Neturei Karta, a group of Ultra-Orthodox Jews who are vehemently against the modern state of Israel, and Code Pink which is a pro-Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement which has some Jews but its unclear how involved they are in the established Jewish community.  But this year, the largest protest group outside was a new organization called If Not Now, their tagline is: WE WILL BE THE GENERATION THAT ENDS OUR COMMUNITY’S SUPPORT FOR THE OCCUPATION.  You might have heard their name last year because its founder, Simone Zimmerman, was hired and then fired as Bernie Sanders Jewish outreach coordinator. 

What makes If Not Now different than other protest groups is that many of them are our children and grandchildren.  They grew up in the organized Jewish community unlike the Neturei Karta and Code Pink.  And it seems that this year, the protests outside had a different impact.  The protestors used Jewish imagery - a recreation of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the Jews walking through it into freedom.  They had signs in Hebrew, with quotes from the Bible and Talmud. 

This year, I heard from rabbis who were inside the policy conference who had congregants outside protesting with this group.  For those who have been to the Walter E. Smith Convention Center, where the policy conference is held, you know that it is a magnificent structure, but what makes it really beautiful is that much of the building is enclosed in glass.  You can see everything going on outside, but you cannot hear anything.  So while the rabbis saw their congregants outside, and their congregants saw them, they couldn’t hear one another.  These rabbis called and texted them, begging them to engage in dialogue, but they refused. 

Honestly, dialogue with protest groups is really difficult.  When I’ve gone to the conference, you try and get through them as quickly as possible.  It is rare that the sides talk to each other, and if they do, it’s more of a screaming match than a real conversation. 

I want you to think about this image - Jews who can see each other, through glass, but they cannot speak or hear each other. 

Honestly, it makes me sad, and it scares me a little bit.  It scares me because I imagine that some of these young people who were outside will be sitting across from some of the people who were inside in just two weeks - at a Passover Seder.  The question is, will they show up?  Will they be invited?  When the glass is removed, will they speak to each other, will they hear each other? 

AIPAC chooses a theme for every policy conference, and so, with their permission, I’d like to borrow their idea for our Seders this year.  Last year’s theme was, “Rice and Beans on the Seder plate or not - that is the question.”  This year’s theme though should be:  Many Voices, One Mission. 

First, let me explain why I think I can borrow it - because the Passover Seder is also one of the wonders of the Jewish world. 

According to the 2013 Pew Research Study called a Portrait of Jewish Americans, 70% of Jews in the U.S. participated in a Seder in 2012, and even 40% of Jews of No Religion participated in a Seder.  Only 1/3 of Jews attend religious services a few times a year.  We might want to lament this, but I think it is something worth celebrating.  There were 18,000 participants at AIPAC this year, and about 300 protestors - and all of these people were mostly Jews. 

That means approximately 3.71 million Jews in America will be sitting down at a Passover Seder on the same day at a table this year.

Think about that how amazing that is!  We often lament how few Jews do Jewish things, and in at least one night, 3.71 million Jews will be engaged in a deeply Jewish experience. 

The Passover Seder is different than other religious experiences.  It is not a prayer service and it is ideally held in a home, but it is deeply ritualistic, and the most vital part of the Seder is not the prayers, but the discussion.  And so, we have a problem - we have Jews who see each other, but won’t hear or speak to one another.  So we must admit the following:  We have many voices - but one mission.  We must invite our family and friends who might think and speak differently than us and listen to them - this is our mission. 

Its our mission for a couple of reasons - first, inviting our family and friends who think differently than us is a literal Korban Todah - a thanksgiving offering. 

When we think of things that go together, we might think of Mac and Cheese - Peanut Butter and Jelly - but Hametz, leavened bread, and Matzah, unleavened bread, definitely do not go together.  And yet, these two opposed things were essential elements of the Todah offering.  Our rabbis say that hametz is a representation of the yetzer harah - the evil inclination.  But the rabbis add that we need the yetzer harah - without the yetzer harah, we would not get married and have children, build homes, get jobs, and so much more.  There is a place for the yetzer harah.  But the matzah gives it balance - Matzah is lechem oni - the bread of affliction and the poor, but it is also the bread of humility.  Combining the two - our impulse to acquire things, to build families, to have an opinion, and deep humility, brings peace and wholeness. 

But on Passover, things are different - there is no hametz - in other words, we are unleavened - we are empty, but also, we are open. We are open to engaging with others, we humble, we are kind.  But since we cannot have hametz at the table, the representation of the yetzer harah, we invite the Rashah to the table.  As we all know, there are four sons:  the wise son, hacham, the simple son, tam, the son who does not know how to answer, she lo yodeyah lishol, and of course, the Rashah, the wicked son. 

On Passover - they are all invited.  The Rasha might annoy us at times - constantly questioning our tradition, even belittling it, but on Passover, even the Rashah is welcomed.  Our Rabbis welcomed the arguments, the cynicism, and the mocking tone - our tradition would rather have the wicked son at the table where we can talk to him, where we can listen to him, and where by his presence he demonstrates that he is part of us—than it would have him on the outside.

And so the Rashah becomes the hametz, and we invite the Rashah at the beginning of the seder.  Without him, we cannot finish the seder, and this is the beauty of our tradition - Many Voices, One Mission - to be in relationship with each other, to tell our story and realize that no matter how different we are as Jews, we share a destiny - We were slaves, and now we are free.  We have a tradition that we must pass on to the next generation.

And so, this is my wish for you for you seder: May you and your family and your friends be together at the table. May you and those with whom you disagree be together at the table as well. May you argue and debate and question each other as much as you want to - for that is a good Jewish tradition that goes back to the Five Sages that stayed up all night in Bnai Brak, arguing until the sun came up. And may you argue with each other respectfully, as befits members of one family to do. May you listen to each other and learn from each other. And may we live together in peace and in mutual respect.


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