Friday, March 31, 2017
Making Room For Others© - Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei - Shabbat HaChodesh 5777/2017
Rabbi David Baum
What is your favorite moment of the seder?
I want to share mine - opening the door for Elijah. When I was kid, we used to watch that cup of wine on the table, waiting for the magic to happen. We could have sworn that the liquid in the cup went down!
But I’ll never forget one Pesach - we started singing Eliyahu HaNavi. The custom is that we open the door for Elijah the Prophet, the prophet who never died, whose return to the world will signal the coming of the Messiah. We opened the door like every other Passover, and a man covered in a white sheet walked in - it really happened. It was my youth director at the time whom our family was very close to.
Half of my family screamed out of fear! But my question to him was, “How long were you standing outside of our door?”
Of course, we do not expect people to walk in. But what if Elijah did walk into our home? What would we do if a stranger sat down and started eating our food?
We are weeks away from Passover, and the question we have to ask ourselves is, why is our Passover table different than all the tables during the year? Before I answer that question, I want to share something we learned this week during our parashah studies class. Together, we learned about the confluence of Shabbat, which is how we begin our parashah, and the building of the mishkan. Holy time and holy space come together - and this is the secret of Judaism.
For centuries, the Mishkan and later the Beit ha-Mikdash (the Temple which stood in Jerusalem) served as the spiritual center of the Jewish people. It was destroyed in 586 B.C.E., rebuilt, and destroyed again in 70 C.E. In its absence, throughout generations, Jews have dreamt of its return and the spiritual sustenance it brought.
One such dreamer was Ezekiel, a prophet of 2500 years ago. Living in Babylon after the destruction of the first temple, he dreamt of a Mikdash rebuilt.
The Rabbis of the Talmud (Tractate B’rachot 55a) found an inconsistency in one verse of Ezekiel’s dream. He dreamt of the altar in the temple, but refers to it as a shulchan, a table - but the question is, why use that term? Rabbi Yochanan, a third-century Rabbi in Israel, offers an interpretation. When the Mikdash stood in Jerusalem, the altar offered atonement and allowed us to return to God, lacking the Mikdash, "it is our tables in our homes that offer us atonement and closeness."
The idea of the magic of the Shabbat and holiday table is something even secular Jews can appreciate. The famous secular Zionist philosopher, Ahad HaAm famously said, “Just as Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” And I believe the Shabbat table is a big part of it. The table is the alter - we salt the bread, just like we salt the sacrifice, we bless the wine just like we poured wine on the alter, and we eat the food, like we ate sacrifice.
Our sacred spaces exist in our synagogues, but each family, or each person, has a sacred space - in their homes. During the week, on a regular weeknight, our dining room tables might be the places for our laundry, our part-time office, or it might be a place for a nightly family dinner. On Friday evening and holidays, that same place changes - it becomes a holy space in holy time.
What makes Passover different than Shabbat. Well, there’s a famous song that we all know, but I think there is a difference - who we invite to our tables.
We actually open our doors twice on Passover. The first time is we open the door is when we say ha Lakma Anya. At the beginning of the seder, we open the door to our past, to slavery and poverty. But it’s also opening the door to another type of affliction - loneliness.
During the HaLakma prayer, we say in Aramaic, the language that our ancestors spoke in the streets, like English today - Kol Dichvin Yeitei V’Yechol, Let all who are hungry come and eat; Kol Ditzrich, Yeteii Vifsach - Let all who are in need come and share the Pesach meal.
Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik asked an interesting question - why do we say the same thing twice? Kol Ditzrikh, he says, refers to one who is alone, who has a lot of Matza and wine but no home or family. There are indeed many ways to be included among the kol ditzrikh. The invitation to “all who are in need” is not yetei ve-yeikhol, “to eat with us;” rather, it is to spend the Pesach with us, yeitei ve-yifsakh, “to celebrate with us.” It is an invitation addressed to unfortunate and lonely people. They might be millionaires; it is completely irrelevant. Whoever is in need should come and celebrate.
What makes Shabbat different than Passover? Not everyone has Friday night dinners - but most Jews have at least one Seder, but not every Jew has a place at the table. On Passover, we literally open the doors to the needy, and to the lonely.
And you might wonder, who will benefit more, the invitee or the host? There’s an old Iraqi Jewish folktale about Elijah the prophet:
Many years ago in Baghdad, there lived a good couple who loved God, gave Tzedaka and helped the poor. All Baghdad honored the couple, and yet they had one sorrow: they had no children. Years passed, and Passover arrived. The couple sat at the Seder table, read the Haggadah, and retold the Exodus. Yet the wife was sad, as she always was at Passover. Her husband understood the reason for her grief and
comforted her as he always did: "Don’t worry, we'll have a child one day. God won’t forget us.” While the couple were talking, there came a sudden knock at the door. At the threshold stood a ragged old man. The couple invited him to join their Seder and treated him with the greatest hospitality. However, when the old man took his leave of the pair who had hosted him so kindly, he turned to them, and instead of thanking them, said, "I pray to God that next year your Pesach table will be a wreck!” The ungrateful old man’s curse astonished the couple and angered them, but out of respect, they said nothing. A month later the wife discovered that she was pregnant! And indeed, three months before the next Passover, a son was finally born to them.
Their great joy cannot be described, and the old man and his curse were of course forgotten. Next Passover, the couple sat around the Seder table and read the Haggadah with their son. The baby behaved like all babies do. He laughed and fussed and tipped over the wine. He knocked over the cups and broke the plates. But
his mother and father loved their only child so much that they took pleasure even in the havoc he wreaked. This was the son they had prayed for year after year. It was only at the end of the Seder that the couple remembered the old man and his”curse." This was indeed a blessing in disguise, and the Old man: they had no doubt in their hearts, was no other than Elijah himself.
Of course, the story tells of the reward that one earns for welcoming a needy guest into your home for Passover. But, sometimes, the reward is harder to find. I will never forget a story I heard from someone I know. He grew up in Argentina to a secular Jewish family. When he was young, he lost his father, and he went to a place he never thought he’d go to seek comfort - a synagogue. It happened to be the first night of Passover. He went into shul, and the rabbi could see the pain on this face. After services, he said to the boy, ‘you’re coming to my house for seder.’ The boy agreed, and it changed his life. The Rabbi’s table he spent seder at was Rabbi Marshal Meyer, and this boy became a rabbi who is changing lives here in South Florida.
When we give a chance, a place at the table, for the those who are lonely, maybe even those who are lonely for a reason, because they can be difficult, we do not know what the potential can be for them in the future, and the gift that we can receive from them.
And so, my blessing for you is that you open your door this Passover, that you make room at your table, not just for the poor, but also the lonely - that you open the door not just to help alleviate their loneliness, but to help bring in a brighter future - and God willing the redemption that Elijah can bring to us.
Kein Yehi Ratzon - May it be God’s will. Amen.