Sign In Forgot Password

Pesach 2 5782  April 17, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Hag Sameach

     What do you think is the most important part of a Pesach Seder? Is it the Four Questions? Is it the Seder songs? Is it the festival meal? Is it the reading of the story of the Exodus? What do you think? What do you think your grandparents, or your ancestors might consider to be the central part of the Seder?

     When we see the order of the Seder at the beginning of the Haggadah we realize that there are fifteen required steps to the Seder. Each one is important in its own way. Across the centuries, there have been many different editions of the Haggadah, but the fifteen steps, the fifteen things that have to be done in order, these are what gives the Seder its name.

     Abigail Pogrebin, an author and commentator, declared in an article she wrote for the Atlantic magazine that for her and her family, the most important part of the Seder is near the beginning, when the door of her home would be opened and the leader of her Seder declared, “All who are hungry come and eat!” Before we even begin to relive the story of the Exodus, we observe the commandment to “welcome the stranger because we were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” On our night of freedom, in our ceremony of deliverance, we affirm who we are as Jews and as people, that because of the Exodus we are about to reenact, we must offer our food to the homeless and the hungry. Why? Because we know what it means to be homeless and hungry.

     I learned this lesson when I was a young boy in elementary school. And yet, I never knew where in the Seder the door was opened for the hungry. My grandfather ran our Seder, and our door was never opened in the beginning of the service. I was a teenager before I discovered this hidden gem and when I asked why we don’t open our door, the answer of my mother was, “it was not our custom.” But whether or not we opened the door, we always had guests for our Seder. Those who needed a Seder and those wanting to learn about Judaism, they may not have been homeless or hungry, but we shared our meal with those who might be alone for Pesach.

     There is a famous story by the famous 18th century writer Israel Zangwill that has the opening of the door at the Seder, at a time of great danger for Jews, resulting in the saving of the community from a blood libel. It is a complicated story; the salvation of the community is determined by who falls through their door when it is opened.  I should note that we are told to open the door twice in the Seder, once at the beginning to open our doors to the hungry and once at the end of the Seder to welcome the prophet Elijah to our Seder table. The first open door is to redeem the poor, the second open door is for our future redemption.

     Ms. Pogrebin, this year, has another concern that may preclude opening our door. In Israel Zangwill’s story, the family can hear in the street the shouts of a Christian mob looking for a Jew to attack on the first night of Pesach. The question for the family is whether or not they should open the door not knowing what danger it might put the whole family in. Ms. Pogrebin notes that we too now live in a country with antisemitism on the rise. Dare we open our doors and let not the hungry but to let danger enter our home?

     Antisemitism is most certainly on the rise. When Vladmir Putin wants to keep western armies at bay, he mentions his nuclear weapons. When someone wants to make Jews angry they only need to draw a swastika on a Jewish building, or a college dorm and they can sit back and watch it drive us Jews crazy. Just two weeks ago, we received a security bulletin that many synagogues in this area, including our own, received a threatening email from some unknown source. I would not have deemed it threatening. It was mostly someone spouting off about some complaint he or she had with life. But it did mention, in passing, the word bomb and that is what prompted the alert. Still, there were no creditable threats being passed around and so there was no need to call for immediate action.

     But beyond the minor acts that seem to be adding up there have been more serious events to consider. Do we pay attention when Hasidic Jews get beat up on the streets of Crown Heights or London? Do we consider the effects on a Hasidic Hanukah party that is interrupted by a man with a machete? What about the men who killed Jews shopping in a Kosher market, one in New Jersey and one in Paris, France? That should make us sit up and take notice.

      There are leaders of the Jewish Community who now think that the last 75 years in this country have been an aberration. There is a long history of antisemitism in the United States that ended abruptly after the horrors of World War II. Now that the last of the Holocaust survivors are dying, we are seeing a return to the antisemitism that once plagued our country.

     I really don’t need to stand here and tell you about the dangers of antisemitism. But what struck Ms. Pogrebin this year was the naivete of opening our door to the hungry. Once again danger stalks outside our homes. The freedom to open our doors has now to be weighed by the danger that might come from such an action. The stranger that we once welcomed might now be the stranger that comes with danger.

     Remember the attack at the synagogue in Colleyville, Texas? Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker invited in a stranger, Malik Faisal Akram who knocked on the locked synagogue door looking for a warm place on a cold day. The Rabbi invited the stranger in for a cup of tea. Thus began an 11 hour hostage incident that ended when the hostages distracted their captor and escaped through an emergency door. It was right and proper for Rabbi Cytron-Walker to invite in the stranger who needed help. Everyone acknowledges that he did the right thing even if he didn’t know what the results might be. Other synagogues immediately began to examine their own policies for welcoming strangers and locking their doors.

     If we learn anything from our history with antisemitism, it is that we are responsible for each other. Nobody else will care about Jews getting hurt. We have watched as the world ignores the many insults that people now hurl at us Jews. We are accused of being master manipulators of countries. We are accused of being Nazis. We are not welcome at protests for Social Justice because we are considered part of the problem of injustice in the world. Our support for Israel is a sign of our disloyalty to the United States and it makes us complicit in the oppression of the Palestinian people in their quest for a homeland. White supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia worried that we Jews will replace them. COVID was a Jewish plot. Ms. Pogrebin declares that the ground has shifted in this country against us Jews. Perhaps Pesach needs to have a shift as well. Maybe we should not be so swift to open our doors.

     Historically speaking, closing our doors has never been a successful response to antisemitism. Hiding behind walls tells others that maybe we do have something to hide. Closing our doors to strangers does not make the strangers any less strange, but it makes us strangers to other Americans. It takes us outside the boundaries of American society. A Rabbi I know once asked his teacher who came from Germany after World War II about why the clergy of other faiths didn’t come to his aide or come to aid the Jewish community? The elder rabbi shook his head. “We never had a relationship with other clergy. They kept to themselves, and we kept to ourselves. We didn’t know each other.” That alone is a great advertisement for interfaith relations.

     We have an interfaith Thanksgiving service here every year. We are foolish if we think that it inoculates us from antisemitism. Still, the more non-Jews who enter our building, the better relations we have with other houses of worship. The more we seek friendship from those who are not Jewish, we build trust and make the lie of antisemitism harder to believe. Certainly, we must be cautious, but we can’t shut ourselves away from those of other faiths and beliefs. Unless we see them and they see us as brothers and sisters, we will look at each other with suspicion.

     Our Seder begins with opening our door for the hungry. The Seder ends with opening the door for Elijah. At this second opening, we ask God to protect us from those who wish our destruction. Those who lie about who we are. Those who equate Zionism with terrorism. We ask God to turn their hatred of us against them. The visit of Elijah reminds us that we are waiting for the prophet to bring this world to a Messianic time, a time of peace and understanding for all people.

     What the Seder is trying to teach us is that we need to reach out to the hungry, the oppressed, the enslaved and help them work toward freedom, but we also need to make sure that when we open that door, we are prepared for whoever might be outside. We need to be kind and we need to be vigilant. We need to look for a better future and keep an eye on the lessons of the past. We can’t let what is evil in the world, prevent us from doing what is right and just. If the world is to be redeemed, it will be because we worked to make the world better.

     This Pesach, let us work hard to open our doors to those in need and fight hard against those who might defame us. We must not let antisemitism close our doors to the world. It is only when we are fully engaged in creating a world of justice and peace that we can effectively fight the insidious lies others try to place upon us.

     May God help us be open to kindness and closed to the hatred as we say….

     Amen and Hag Sameach

Tue, February 7 2023 16 Shevat 5783