I read an unusual story this week. It was an opinion piece by a former college admissions officer about the kinds of essays that high school students submit as part of their college applications. She said that it was hard to select students for admission when they all pretty much said the same thing; they were bright, active students with interesting after school activities and long lists of service projects. And yet, from time to time a different trait suddenly would shine through.
The admissions officer noted that the attribute of kindness was often a rare moment of beauty in the sea of essays. One time she noted that she got a letter of recommendation for a student that came from the school custodian. In the letter the custodian mentioned that the student always cleaned up after other students, the student knew the names of everyone on the custodial staff, and a host of other actions that showed how the student cared about others in the school.
It reminded me of a story I heard long ago about first year medical students who were taking an exam and one of the questions was; “What is the name of the janitor who cleans this classroom?” The high achieving students protested the question because it had nothing to do with being a doctor and it spoiled what could have been a perfect grade on the exam. The professor responded, “You had better know the names of the people who clean up after you.”
This is Shabbat HaGadol, the great Shabbat before Passover. This is the day when the Rabbi of the Shtetel in Europe would speak for three to four hours on the laws of Pesach. Pesach is such a complicated holiday that people needed to be reminded every year about how to get rid of Hametz and prepare for the Seder. I don’t need to speak for hours on the laws of Pesach; you can find all the information you need on the internet (Where else?) but there are some things we can do to prepare that go beyond what the internet has to offer.
The story of the Haggadah begins with Pharaoh in Egypt. He knows the kindness of Joseph who saved Egypt from seven years of famine, but he chooses to ignore this and enslave the Israelite people. Pharaoh returns enmity for the kindness Joseph has shown. The slavery becomes harder and harder as the Egyptians try and break every aspect of Israelite life, to break even the spirit in their souls. Israelites are to be reduced to less than human; they are to be objects that can be traded, sold or broken. It is as if there is a competition as to how mean Egypt can be to Israel.
But the story of Yetziyat Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt, is not a story of hatred and revenge. The Haggadah shows clearly that Israel repaid the mean Egyptians with kindness. There are no jeering crowds when the Jews leave, in fact the Egyptians see them off with gifts as if to thank the Israelites for their “service” over the years. Many times we are reminded not to hate Egyptians or other strangers because once we were strangers in Egypt and we know how it feels to be the “other” in society.
In the Haggadah, slavery is the low point to mark how much we have grown as a people. The degradation of our people is only the beginning of how we learned to be kind and compassionate to others. The Exodus is the result of a loving God expressing kindness to the people of Israel. Even as we read about the plagues that God visited upon the Egyptians, we take a drop of wine from our cup to note that we can’t be joyful when someone else is suffering, even if that someone is our enemy. Moses and the Israelites may have sung a song of victory at the Red Sea when the Egyptian army was destroyed, but God silenced the Angels from their songs, reminding the angels that “my children are dying and you want to sing?”
Our tradition teaches that we are all descended from the first human being to remind us that no person is better than any other person. We have to behave with kindness to everyone no matter what their position in life might be. This is why it has long bothered me that we can’t have discussions, disagreements or conversations anymore because we have forgotten how to be kind.
Social media is now filled with hatred and mean spirits. People are called vile names and accused falsely of all kinds of evil intentions. Students are bullied by other students until they break down in tears and can’t show their face in public anymore. But it is not just students. Even adults attempt to shame those with whom they disagree. Recently a woman actress won a part in a movie remake that had once gone to a man. She received such vile threats on her Twitter account that she had to finally shut it down.
There is a story of an old man on a bus with a beautiful bouquet of flowers. Sitting across the aisle from him is a young woman who can’t take her eyes off the flowers. They are so beautiful. Finally, the bus stops and the old man gets up from his seat to exit the bus, suddenly he turns to the young woman and hands her the flowers, “Here, “he says, “I got these for my wife but since you love them so much, I am sure that she would want you to have them.” He then gets off the bus and as the bus pulls away they look back and see the old man entering a cemetery.
The Torah teaches us that if we come upon our enemy struggling to place a load on his donkey, we have to stop and help him with the donkey and the load. The Talmud finishes the story. If we help our enemy, perhaps he will say, “Maybe I misjudged this man, he seems so kind” so a discussion begins; the two have lunch/coffee together and eventually the relationship between them is repaired. All through an act of kindness.
All too often, we assume the worst of people who do things that we think are wrong or different. Without any proof at all, we convict people in our minds for all sorts of things that have made us angry. We ascribe to them terrible motives; that they hate us, that they are trying to hurt us, that they are after our jobs or our possessions. They must belong to some nefarious organization, they are evil people, they are bigots and prejudiced against us and against what we stand for.
And yet, if we were to honestly question them about their position, we would find most often that they are not evil people at all. They are not selfish or rude. They just hold a different opinion; they just see the world in a different way than we see it. They are considering certain details of the world as important that we have dismissed. They may even be considering problems that we do not even know about. We might even be able to learn from them if we would give them a chance.
This is one reason Judaism tells us to judge other people charitably. To assume the best in people instead of the worst. To assume kind motivations rather than evil schemes. We all have our bad days and we all make some bad decisions from time to time, and we have to allow for others to make the same mistakes. Judging kindly can be the determining factor in improving the way we see the world.
With one short exception, the Seder is about seeing our history from the vantage point of Kindness. The story of the Haggadah is one of freedom and release. We travel on Seder night from the narrow restrictions of Egypt, the slavery and degradation to freedom and light. It is a journey filled with miracles and revelations. It is not only the story of our ancestors who were refugees from Egypt; it is also the story of all refugees who leave their homes looking for a better life for themselves and their children. It is also the story of our lives, of our leaving home to find our place in the world. There are the bitter herb moments, there are cups of joy to be consumed and there is a God to thank for helping us find our way from the darkness to the light.
And the Haggadah tells us that the journey is never finished. Next year we should be in Jerusalem, next year should be the final redemption. And if not, then we will gather again here with our family to contemplate our journey and to keep our sights on the Promised Land. The history of our people may have its moments of oppression, or darkness and fear, but we are always on the journey to freedom, light and joy. If that is not a reason to have a great meal of celebration, then I don’t know what is.
May God be with us at our Seder as we travel from slavery to freedom and from darkness to light, and may God help to bring greater kindness and understanding to this world as we say … Amen, Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach.
Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Friday, April 7, 2017.