My wife and I may be the only family to have designed a home around two consecutive nights each year.
We have always taken seriously the declaration of the Passover seder – all who are hungry, come and eat; all who need to do so, come and partake of the Passover ritual.
Until the arrival of the plague of COVID-19, it was not unusual for us to have seated as many as 50 people around a continuous series of tables to follow the 15 ritual steps that commemorate the exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian enslavement.
They included extended family, long-time friends and people from all parts of our lives whom we knew would add value to the hours-long meal, conversation and worship.
The word seder means “order.” Fulfilling the observance means following each step in order, from the sanctification by means of the first of four glasses of wine, to the explanation of specific foods and ritual objects, to the recitation of sections of psalms, to playful songs that conclude the hours-long gathering (and are designed to keep us at the table).
The two longest steps are also the most enjoyable. The first is the “Telling.”
The traditional liturgy begins with four questions asked by the children (There must be children!). Then biblical verses recounting the experience of being slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt are explicated with contributions from rabbis across two millennia, most of them containing messages about their own times and relevant to ours.
At our table, the discussion also centers around a contemporary consideration of the lessons of slavery and freedom. Everyone is invited, even expected to contribute. Our guests have been every age, multiple faith and belief traditions, locals and international visitors, people of every race.
At various times, a lost boy of Sudan described his harrowing escape, a pastor confessed his worry that he might have been complicit had he lived in mid-century Germany, a scholarship student from an Arab country discovered he was sitting next to the Chief of Staff to the U.S. president, a group of Black pastors discussed with a group of rabbis – and all their families – the role of anger in liberation.
One year, guests were asked to describe the one object they would grab if they had to leave slavery suddenly. Another year, each guest had to imagine another guest from history to be at the table.
The second is the meal. The dietary restrictions for a traditional Passover are strict: no leavened product or anything that has had contact with leavened products. What may sound like “dinner impossible” is, under the guidance of my extraordinary wife, a feast from soup to nuts, literally.
Over a span of 90 minutes or more, conversations across generations and life experiences are free to roam where they will.
One year, two of our guests with the same last name – one very white and Presbyterian and one very Black and Pentecostal – tried to find the common point of origin (they didn’t).
Another year, I forged a lasting friendship with a pastor who had been an unwitting party to the attempted assassination of a doctor who performed abortions who was my cousin (and was now trying to atone for his role).
Not all Jewish families welcome non-Jews to their seder.
Among the very traditional, those who are not obligated to the prescribed rituals are not permitted to participate in them, just as non-believers are proscribed from partaking of sacraments in some traditions. The rituals are considered holy in addition to being the cultural expression of the Jewish people.
For that reason, I have always been opposed to the appropriation of the seder by non-Jewish groups. Particularly egregious to me is the reimagining of the seder as a prophetic vehicle to justify belief in Jesus as Lord.
Christians and other non-Jews who want to experience the richness of the seder and its true meaning should get friendly with a Jewish family!
Alternatively, there are rabbis and other educators who will demonstrate an abridged seder for non-Jews at their houses of worship or gathering. (One year I demonstrated seven of them and understood the burden of the story like never before!)
The advantage of welcoming diverse guests to a seder is the opportunity for everyone to encounter each other in a safe and structured circumstance.
Old friends rarely have a chance to discuss matters of consequence outside of life transitions or tragedies. New friends rarely have a chance to explore with any depth the values and practices that are important to each other.
But progressing purposefully through the 15 steps – some of them as simple as washing hands and others as complicated as acknowledging the suffering of the Egyptians during the plagues – and discussing the resonance of each allows for both respect and careful intimacy.
After more than four hours at our table of listening, sharing food, singing and reflecting on past and present, everyone shares an important set of memories.
The declaration “all who are hungry come and eat” is shouted by everyone at the table while the door to the house is open.
Back in the day, when there might very well have been a community member unable to feed him/ her/ them? self and family, the invitation was considered sincere and serious. Today, the more likely outcome is that I will startle a neighbor out for a walk.
But there are lots of hungers, including for the understanding, respect and affection that comes from fellowship. In my house, we try to be sure to do what we can to feed the soul and the body in our long, long dining room.