Last Saturday night, American Jews, their friends and their families sat down to the most widely observed tradition in our community, the Passover Seder. Like most rabbis, I am always happy to see people engaged with Jewish practice. But unless the practices and rituals that mark the celebrations and sacred moments of the collective calendar shape the rest of our time between such moments, then something is amiss.
The real opportunity of any sacred moment is how its observance can enhance our lives until we reach the next one, whether in our personal lives or in the life of the larger communities in which we live. At the Seder, many of us spoke and heard words that can do that. Now we must rise to the challenge of making them real for the next 51 weeks.
The Seder begins with our declaration that all those who are hungry should come and eat. In fact, the invitation is traditionally made not in the Hebrew of the rest of the Haggada, but in Aramaic, the English of the early centuries of the Common Era.
This was done so that anyone listening could understand the invitation and avail themselves of it. But most of us would be pretty surprised, even a little unnerved, if some stranger happened to take us up on our seemingly generous offer. So what’s going on here?
Aside from the obvious lesson that we should all be opening our homes a bit more to those less fortunate than ourselves, these words invite us to open our own hearts and minds. Feeding a stranger is relatively easy. For most of us, nothing could be more Jewish.
Listening carefully to strange ideas, however, is less so. In a world increasingly shaped by litmus tests — about everything from who should serve as America’s representative to the United Nations to which single issue qualifies someone to serve on a federal court, from what counts as “authentically Jewish” to who has the right to march through Jerusalem declaring their love of Israel and the Jewish people — this opening ritual of the Seder challenges us to think more intelligently and to behave more inclusively.
The real power of the invitation we extend as the Seder begins lies in asking those at the table not only to share our food, but also to share their opinions and their ideas with the rest of us, even those opinions and ideas with which we may strongly disagree. How strongly might we disagree? Strongly enough that one of those imagined people who brings his ideas to our Seder table and to our lives, is actually called evil — rasha — by the Haggada.
Most of us assume that upon finding evil in the world, our first response must be to destroy it. And while that may ultimately be necessary, it is not the first choice of our tradition. Instead, we are told that anyone willing to take a seat at the table of Jewish life is part of our family. We learn from the rabbis that anyone willing to participate in a Jewish conversation, to ask a question — no matter how seemingly abhorrent — deserves our genuine consideration.
Rather than shying away from declaring that evil is real, or insisting that our initial read of its presence demands a quick and harsh response, the rabbis empower us to make such determinations, while insisting that those so labeled still deserve the love and respect that mark all great family relationships.
In fact, according to a Hasidic teaching from Belz, that is why the person who maintains such disturbing, even misguided, ideas is called rasha in Hebrew. This three-letter word begins with the letter resh and concludes with the letter ayin, which together spell “rah,” evil. But in the middle of the word, we find the letter shin, symbolic of the Shekhina, the presence of God as a source of complete love and nurturing.
Our challenge in listening to one we consider to be evil is to see through to the inner core of the question being asked, or of the opinion being espoused, and to learn from it even if we never agree with it, to see that person as holy for being willing to ask questions and share ideas. Actually, such openness to others is the hallmark of the freedom that Passover celebrates, and affirms the dignity of each human being that slavery strips away.
This year, as Passover ends, let’s internalize this critical lesson about honest inquiry and public discourse. We must always be prepared to ask the toughest, smartest and most interesting questions about the directions in which our nation is heading, the future of the Jewish people and that of the world. We must ask these questions of each other, and of ourselves, and must make it safe for others to do so as well.
Whether we find ourselves on the right or on the left, consider ourselves traditionalist or progressive, we must invite each other to ask the occasional rasha question — one which makes us a bit uncomfortable with those answers that we think we already have. After discussing what makes the question being posed a rasha question, try to locate the shin, the holiness, in that same question. Then consider how finding that wisdom affects your thinking about the issue at hand, the person asking the question and the relationship between you and that person.
By asking such questions, and by hearing each other in such loving and respectful ways, we can create the kind of spiritual and intellectual communities that both we, and the rest of the world, so desperately need.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is vice president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.