This weekend, the Jewish community will gather around our seder tables. We’ll sing songs from the Haggadah, drink four cups, snack on our fill of matzah! We’ll recognize the essential themes of the holiday: “That we were slaves in Egypt” and “That we rejoice in our Redemption!” And we’ll take time to connect these ideals to our world today: “To remember those that still struggle, who still feel enslaved.” Passover is a time to remember our past and also hope for a better future for us all.
Yet, there is a tension about who should gather around our holiday table. From the very first Passover in Egypt, our people have debated the essence of the Passover meal. Is the Passover seder a home ritual for our families or is a time to gather as a community?
That tension is found in this week’s Torah portion. For we read, “Each of them shall take a lamb to a family…” (Exodus 12:3) and shortly afterwards “The whole community of Israel shall offer it” (Exodus 12:47). At the first Passover, each family gathered together and roasted a lamb, yet at the same time the entire community offered this sacrifice to God. Which one is it? Family or community?
In the Midrash, Mekhilta deRabbi Shimon Bar Yochai 12:47:1, our rabbis answer this question about who should gather at our holiday tables. As we read: “I think that just as the first Passover in Egypt was eaten by families, so too the Passover celebrations of future generations. It says: ‘the entire congregation of Israel’ for Passover celebrations of the future may be eaten in all kinds of groups, not just by families.”
How powerful is this answer! The first Passover was celebrated in family groups, but in the future, Passover Seder should be celebrated with others. As modern people, we recognize that our definition of family might be different from those in the past. We might be a family of one or a family of Jewish and non-Jewish relatives. We might be a family of multiple generations or a family of our choosing: a plethora of close friends. At our seder, we gather with the entire congregation of Israel, however broadly we define that term!
We also don’t forget the words found in Ha Lachma Anya, at the start of the Haggadah, “All who are hungry come and eat, all who are in need, come and enjoy the Passover meal.” We must not close off our tables from those who need a place to celebrate the Pesach holiday. Our rabbis teach us that we must open our doors and our hearts to the breadth of the congregation of Israel and to all of humanity.
Rabbi Andy Gordon serves as the spiritual leader of the Bolton Street Synagogue in Baltimore.