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The Seder and Inclusion

The Seder and Inclusion

Passover

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“My father1 once told me: ‘Yosef Yitzchak, during the Seder one must concentrate on becoming a mensch, and then G‑d will help. Especially when the door is opened for Elijah – don’t pray for the physical, pray for the spiritual.’” – Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch

On Passover eve, hundreds of thousands of Jews the world over will usher in the holiday. And while its observance is closely tied to the Seder and its many rituals, its foundational, underlying message is perhaps the most powerful, life-changing, universal Torah teaching one can hope to learn in the course of one’s lifetime. It is the resonant, deeply human tenet of social justice, of the unequivocal right of every individual to live in dignity, embraced by society because of who he or she is.

As we will sit down around the Seder table, we will raise our voices in unison, declaring in Aramaic, “Hay lachma anya - This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever is in need, let him come and conduct the Seder …” This text is recited specifically in Aramaic (the common language of the era) so that our open invitation is precisely that: a call to anyone and everyone – an all-inclusive no-holds barred invite.

The narrative in the Haggadah will continue, introducing us to the four sons attending the Seder – symbolic of the four archetypes within every human being: the Wise one, the Wicked one, the Simpleton, and the one Who Does Not Even Know How to Ask. Yet, G‑d will not be content to leave the fourth son in that compromised position; He will instructs us, “You must initiate him.” The responsibility now ours.

The Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory—goes a step further, reminding us about the fifth son, the one who is absent from the Seder table. He is the child who is completely in the dark regarding the holiday of Passover, its practices and customs; he is simply unfamiliar with the exodus from Egypt, the miracles wrought at the sea, the revelation at Sinai and how we came to assume our mission as Jews. He may be unaware that he is missed, but his absence creates an indelible void.

It is exceedingly clear that the Seder table will be incomplete without the representation and participation of the entire spectrum of society. All five sons, each symbolic of another sector of society, each vastly different one from another, must all be present at the Seder table to make our family whole, to complete our circle.

Perhaps Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn shared his father’s message about how to behave during the Seder to ensure that we take these practices to the next level. The judgment-free tier of the most inclusionary potent benchmark reality-check of all; the litmus test for whether we embody the characteristics of the authentic mensch. Perhaps everything we do at the Seder, every step in the process of reenacting our escape from bondage, can and will only be properly orchestrated when we are aware in our most intimate heart of hearts to remember always who we are and where we came from.

"You shall not abuse or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt" Exodus 22:20

How absolutely telling that this is quoted in the Torah more frequently than even the commandment to love G‑d Himself!

The Torah does not find it sufficient to simply tell us, “You shall not abuse or oppress a stranger” – it asks us why not? “For you were strangers in Egypt” – because you once stood in the very spot he now stands in.

It is this very exodus of the Jews from Egypt in the year 3229 that gave birth to the social justice revolution long before the world knew about charity, justice, inclusion, and the equality of all human beings. It gave rise to the single most cited reminder in the Torah to each and every Jew of all time. It is the thread that binds us to ourselves and to each other. It is the call of the hour, the lesson of the day, the cautionary counsel of all time, and the eternal memory constantly etched in our minds, hearts, and souls.

G‑d made all of us in His image. We are His flawless handiwork. And yet, lest we forget, He reminds us, “For you were strangers in Egypt”.

You, and I, and every individual is charged with the mission to love, cherish, respect, and invite all to participate and celebrate at our Seder tables. Whether they join our physical or proverbial tables, they are our next of kin, our family with whom we share a history of being strangers in Egypt.

There is nothing more powerful than the force of personal experience, history and memory. We know the soul of the stranger. We feel the heart of the outcast. We are one and the same. The same G‑d who created me, created you. The same G‑d who took me out of Egypt, took you out of Egypt. And the same G‑d who loves me, loves you.

How can I abuse, oppress, dislike, mistreat, discriminate against the stranger when the stranger is me?

And so this year, as we commemorate our exodus from Egypt, step-by-Seder-step, let us concentrate on becoming the ultimate mensch… Let us open the door and greet Elijah the Prophet with prayers for the physical and spiritual well-being of each and every individual created in the image of G‑d.

Let us hold on to each other and be comfortable in the knowledge that while we must never forget we were strangers in Egypt, “There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t yet met.”2

Footnotes
1.
Rabbi Shalom DovBer, the fifth Rebbe of Lubavitch.
2.
William Butler Yeats.
Shaindy Jacobson, a noted educator and lecturer, is the director of the Jewish Learning Institute’s Women Division.
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