All rabbis have humbling moments when the words that spontaneously emerge from our mouths wind up being far more impactful than those sermons over which we slave through ceaseless drafts. Such a moment happened to me just this past week.
The setting? Our annual Interfaith Seder. The timing? Right after a full Paschal meal and before we got to an ecumenical Barech, our grace after meals. The impetus? I was doing what all rabbis must do… thanking everyone who helped. Given the fact that we host over 150 people from 12 different faith institutions, feature two different choirs, include 14 clergy partners, and engage 30 temple volunteers, there was a long list of people to whom I owed gratitude for sharing such an event. Equal–if not above–them all, are all the members of the staff team at Sinai. I came around to thanking Bill, who is part of our security team. Right after I thanked Billy, these words just came out of my mouth, my mind:
Our real security tonight is being here, all together.
“Let all who are hungry come and eat” can be taken in many different ways. Some of us, cleaning our houses of chametz, make donations to local food pantries to make sure those who literally hunger can find sustenance this festival season. Others of us host communal sedarim so that no one has to be alone on Passover. At Chicago Sinai Congregation, a different kind of hunger brought together a community across lines of race, class and color. I just didn’t realize it until the Haggadot had closed and Adir Hu was but an echo in our ears.
I inherited a remarkable ritual when I joined this synagogue: every year, about two weeks before Passover, we host an Interfaith Seder for our non-Jewish neighbors. The event was explained to me as an opportunity to share the best of what Judaism has to offer: we stage a model Seder through which we can teach our Jewish practices, traditions, and most deeply-held values. With the tools of our Haggadah, our favorite songs, and some explanations along the way, we manage to create a lovely evening, and express the importance of our core narrative of liberation with the unique impact of Pesach.
When we gathered for last year’s Interfaith Seder, I did what many of do at Seder: I added a supplemental reading to help us focus on contemporary issues of oppression. The Reform Movement was launching its Racial Justice campaign; I barely need spill any ink expressing why that is relevant here in Chicago. And so one year ago, just before we blessed the matzah and made our Hillel sandwiches, I gathered the clergy who were in attendance, and we read the Racial Justice supplement created by Rabbis Organizing Rabbis. We simply stood at the front of the social hall and read from photocopied pieces of paper. A last-minute idea turned out to be last year’s most powerful moment of the night.
And so, a few weeks ago, I went searching for something new to supplement the Seder, a different piece for the participating clergy to read. After a it of poking around, I decided to excerpt part of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “No Religion is an Island,” originally published in 1966.* Amidst the rush of preparing for multiple Sedarim, a few shabbat sermons, and a CCAR convention, it seemed like it would fit the bill just fine.
I was not prepared to hear by friend and partner, the Reverend Randall K. Blakey, read these words:
First and foremost we meet as human beings who have so much in common: a heart, a face, a voice, the presence of a soul, fears, hope, the ability to trust, a capacity for compassion and understanding, the kinship of being human. My first task in every encounter is to comprehend the person-hood of the human being I face, to sense the kinship of being human, solidarity of being.
This is what our Seder, every Seder, is about: the kinship and solidarity of all human beings. As the assembled clergy continued to read, Episcopalians, Catholics, Presbyterians, AME Zion-ists, UCC-ers, Buddhists, Muslims, and Jews literally brought life to Heschel’s vision. And tears to people’s eyes.
We are living in turbulent times. Political forces threaten to dismantle long-standing inter-religious partnerships and splinter off friends forced to protect their small self-interests. Cruel and sadistic individuals call or email our institutions and threaten our precious children; we fear these actions won’t culminate merely in threats. Our nation’s beacon of hope for the world’s tempest-tossed–a most fitting metaphor for our Passover theme–is being dimmed to darkness. We find few places to feel secure.
This was the hunger people brought with them to this year’s Interfaith Seder: a hunger for human decency, a hunger for a hopeful message, a hunger for belonging to a larger community united for the common good. Oh, that all who have such hunger could come and be nourished!
I was hungry, too. What I realized during our Interfaith Seder, what actually came out of my mouth before it entered my consciousness, is that–for all the needed guards and protocols Jewish institutions require–our greatest security during these turbulent times will be our friends, our community, our partners. When we build strong relationships with friends of other faiths, when we speak honestly of shared values that arise from different sources, when we live our lack of fear for the other and demonstrate a compassionate curiosity in other human beings, we build an impenetrable fortress of faith. Not faith in the same God, perhaps, or even any God at all. But faith in united purpose. Faith in common destiny. Faith in each and every human being who hungers.
Let all who are hungry find the sustenance we need in this year’s Passover.
Rabbi Seth Limmer serves Chicago Sinai Congregation.