I have rarely experienced a more powerful gathering than the diverse group gathered together that different night in my living room. Two Christian pastors, one a dedicated activist working against the horrors of human trafficking, the other a Methodist deeply immersed in looking at the Jewishness of the historical Jesus; a very religious Muslim student intoxicated with God and fascinated by other religions; Rastafarian Qabbalists; a whimsical Buddhist; peace activists; resettled Sudanese refugees and a handful of Jews were all gathered to celebrate a 2nd Night Seder, consciously planned as a night of diversity and reflection by Amy Stein, Director of Boulder’s ADL office, and myself. The anticipation as people began to arrive was palpable, as none of us knew what to expect. Perhaps there was fear and suspicion of what might happen or what might be said, as well as the obvious excitement as this unique community began to form around a traditional table with the Seder plate set and the hand baked shemurah matzos from Brooklyn tucked into their ritual wrapping, as the mouth watering smells of vegan matzo ball soup and other goodies wafted in from the kitchen.
We began by asking each participant to introduce themselves along with one aspect of their identity that they wanted the rest of the group to know. The openness with which people shared themselves was so moving and established us as a sacred community, destined to experience a special night of holiness together. We went through the traditional rituals, interspersed with personal and cultural stories and songs about the meanings of freedom, including a harrowing account of modern day slavery in Mauritania, Albania and many places much closer to home. Samera, our Muslim guest, compared the feeling of breaking the fast each night of Ramadan with dates to the specialness of eating matzah once a year at Passover. We sang Bob Marley’s Redemption Song, as well as an old protest song in a round. There was much food for thought to accompany the abundant Seder feast.
The biggest surprise came after the meal when more than half of the guests had left and we arrived at that point in the Seder where we open the door and read the passage, “Sh’foch chamatcha al hagoyim – Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know You!” Amy turned to me and whispered, “we’re going to skip this, right?” With some trepidation, I decided that we should not gloss over this challenging, dark moment in the Seder and we went for it. The surprise was that it seemed to be only the Jews around the table who had a problem with it, as everyone else seemed more able to put it into a context. “Calling on a vengeful angry deity is really important in Buddhism as a way to wake up our consciousness. It seems like this is similar,” was one comment. “Part of being free is the ability to express anger and rage, which you can’t do if you’re a slave as you’d be punished,” was another. We had a deeply fascinating discussion about the place and the value of anger in religion as both a personal, spiritual practice, as well as an imperative of a national and historical narrative of trauma. What struck me most is how easy it is for me to feel like I have to apologize for aspects of my tradition, yet I learned that night, that if we share the shadows of our past honestly, fully and lovingly, they will be received and understood, and eventually transcended. This experience opened me and inspired me to lead an unapologetic Hallel (the traditional passages of Psalms) in full in Hebrew with lots of joyful singing! The revelation for me is how easy it is to dumb down and sell short our powerful tradition when we are trying to making it accessible to people outside, and how much more of a gift it is to show it in its fullness. As long as we are willing to share ourselves and our traditions honestly with others, we need never apologize for who we are.
There are some strong opinions that state that the Torah commands that a Seder should be only for Jews, but after my recent experience, I cannot accept such a limiting paradigm of this juicy, ritual reenactment of our journey to freedom.
The days in between Passover and Shavuot are a spiritually provocative journey from redemption to revelation. Each Shavuot, we receive the Torah anew. It is different each year, because we are different, our world is different. That is the beauty of a text so full of depth – the same words change as we change. This year, I would like to receive a Torah that is able to hold the beauty and the mystery of the richness of our particular, covenantal expression as Jews, and at the same time the expansiveness of a deeply shared humanity that continues to unfold. The Torah is big enough for it all.