Extending invitations, building bridges

by | Apr 8, 2016 | Torah Thought

The Passover seder is one of the most observed and memorable rituals on the Jewish calendar. What is it that makes the seder so special? After all, it’s the same every year—the same food, the same text, the same mishigas—or so it would seem. In fact, no two seders are ever the same. Every year when we gather for the seder one thing changes: the people around the table.

If you are a family that gathers the same group together for the seder every year, then the change is more internal. The people are the same, but each person has changed from the year before. Different parts of the service or rituals will move participants in new ways and based on these new perspectives, the discussion and focus of the seder will head in different directions. It won’t be the same as last year. However, the rabbis who created the seder ritual had an even more stark yearly change in mind. They expected the group gathered around the table to change from year to year. They understood the power of invitation to celebrate freedom and uncover wisdom and so they built it right into the ritual.

At the beginning of the magid, the telling of the story section of the seder, we read the famous declaration on, “This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry, let them enter and eat.” If this invitation were only about feeding the hungry, as it is often interpreted, it would be at the end of the magid, just before we eat. Why put it at the beginning of the hour plus-long ritual of the telling? Apparently the rabbis had a different kind of hunger in mind. The haggadah is sending the message that we cannot tell the story without extending an invitation for new people to join our seder. The rabbis expected a new cast of characters every year and with them, new perspectives, interpretations and ideas. The ritual itself is telling us that from invitation and diversity comes wisdom.

There are many ways to create diversity around your seder table with the power of invitation. You can invite old friends and new acquaintances, people from different backgrounds, work colleagues or members of your kid’s soccer team. There is some controversy in traditional Jewish practice about whether or not people of different religious backgrounds should be invited to a seder, but I think that misses the point of “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” We make a point of having some diversity of religions represented at our seder every year and always find the differing backgrounds and experiences to add to our discussion and perspectives on everything from slavery to freedom to ritual itself.

The seder is built on the idea that through the power of invitation, wisdom can be found. Inviting people to our table, celebrating diverse perspectives and personal stories is, in and of itself, an expression of freedom. Invitation insures a new telling every time and that every seder is unique. Not only that, but sharing in the seder ritual creates a bond between the diverse participants, a shared experience built around values that we all share: freedom, redemption and hope for a better world.

In the Passover story, the Jewish people had to rely on God to part the sea on our behalf. Redemption and freedom could only come from divine intervention. The seder ritual puts that power in our hands. We can’t part seas to cross on dry land, but we can build bridges. We do so through the power of invitation, diversity, and shared ritual. May we all celebrate this Passover by building those kinds of bridges, and thus find wisdom and create a better world full of real understanding, deep bonds, and shared wisdom.

—Rabbi Jeffrey M. Arnowitz, Congregation Beth El.