A Passover Sermon

Today’s blog comes to us from our friend Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon of Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, IL. He has over 25 years of experience as a rabbi in the Chicago area, and has devoted himself to outreach and unity among the interfaith population in his community and beyond. We feel the thoughts he shared with his congregation in this sermon about Passover speak to a lot of the same themes we have brought up over the past couple of weeks regarding the inclusive message of the holiday. Enjoy.

In just a few days we will celebrate Passover. Many of us will bring to our Seders the memories of Passovers we celebrated as children with all the familiar food, Jewish relatives seated around the table, and personal family traditions. But for many of our Seder guests, they are somewhat newer entrants into the Jewish family and people. Many have arrived at these ceremonies as adults without all the same memories as their spouses and families for whom this is part of their history. How do manage to make all feel at home at this most important holiday in the Jewish calendar?

The family therapist and author, Esther Perel, has used the metaphor of the immigration experience to better help us understand the cultural dynamic of marrying someone of a different faith. Imagine that instead of marrying a person of another religion, yours was a marriage to a person of another country and culture. In this exercise, imagine that instead of marrying a Jew, pretend you are marrying someone from France. You decide that it will be fine to move to France and raise a family there. France is a nice place. It is civilized, cultured, and the food is good. You study French language and become proficient. You read all the books you can about French culture, literature, and art. You begin to feel comfortable living in France, though you may never choose to become a citizen and give up your American background.

Things go well, but there are some problems. You may begin to feel that you take French culture and life more seriously than your French born spouse. You say: “You’ve lived in France all your life, and you mean to say that you’ve never been to the Louvre?” As hard as you have tried to learn how to cook in French style, you know that your mother-in-law will never think that your casoulet is very good. Your children love being French, and that is fine with you, but you can’t believe that they like to put chocolate sauce on toast and that they cannot stand peanut butter and jelly. They sneer at hot dogs. You enjoy their delight on Bastille Day, but you wish they could celebrate a typical small town America Fourth of July. Most of all, you become seriously homesick on Thanksgiving, and your spouse really doesn’t understand why. When there is a crisis at home or with your family, you might want to go back home to America. Sometimes you just want to speak English. You want to take your kids to America for a visit without feeling that you are being disloyal to your spouse.

Now think not of France, but of Judaism. The person marrying into the Jewish world is moving into a new culture—almost a new country. That person is becoming an immigrant. The person can choose to become a citizen, but one can also decide to remain a resident alien. In the American immigration model, it is as if the non Jewish partner is carrying a Green Card but has not taken an oath of citizenship.

Think about the holiday of Thanksgiving. In America we do not claim that the descendants of the Mayflower are the only people who have a right to celebrate Thanksgiving. That would be absurd and completely contrary to our American values. Though my own family was far from these shores in the 17th Century, I feel completely at home at the Thanksgiving dining room table. The celebration is mine, and the history is mine. My political ancestors from 1776 are Jefferson, Madison, and Washington. It doesn’t matter to me that my own family members were in Eastern Europe at the time. That is the nature of immigration and becoming a citizen of a new country. So too with Jewish life, culture, and ritual. The new entrant into Jewish life has as valid a claim to tradition as the one who claims to trace his or her roots back to the line of King David.

Passover is in many ways the Jewish Thanksgiving. Our doors are open to all who choose to share the Passover meal with us. We read: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” But we must also welcome all who hunger for acceptance and welcome. All have a place at the table. Passover is the most observed of all Jewish holidays. Each Passover Seder is different, however, and there are hundreds of haggadot from which to lead the Seder service. Each is unique, but every one is also authentic and valid. We come to the Seder with questions and add to the basic story with concerns of the day and stories of our own lives and remembrances. Choose a good haggadah or have multiple choices. Let everyone ask questions. No person should feel excluded.

Our family traditions are rich but often complicated. Living with diversity we integrate multiple experiences, but our religious quest is most meaningful if we allow ourselves to use these times to tell our family narratives and stories.

May this season of Passover be one of blessing.

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