Jews are a family.
Jews are a faith.
Jews are a people, then a nation.
Jews are an idea.
Passover begins at sundown tonight. And as just as the four legged tables around the world are set in the myriad ways we commemorate this week long festival event, other fours conspire to tell the story of family, faith, a people, and the ideas that animate our historical existence.
Four questions. Four children. Four cups. On four legs--family, faith, nation and the very idea of the Jew in the world.
Everyone's talking about us these days, or so it seems. We are at center stage of the Obama administration's negotiations over a nuclear Iran; the Middle East's only true democratic election, held in Israel a couple weeks ago, remains at the eye of the storm of the world's attention and Capitol Hill's most pained and partisan debates; and as Jeffrey Goldberg and others have shown recently, Jews are increasingly questioning their sense of home in a Europe that is ever-changing and struggling mightily with rising anti-Semitism and racism.
The severe lack of ease that many Jews feel is more palpable today than at any time in my lifetime, for sure. And while the exceptional privilege afforded by the American experiment in creating "one from many" makes life for American Jewry an open, flourishing expression of rich opportunity and grace, we would be denying our obligation to Jewish memory to sit at our Seder tables tonight and not talk about that which makes "this night different from all other nights."
Especially when the nation that is negotiating for the right to develop nuclear power, Iran, has religious and political leaders who continue to call for the destruction of the Jewish state; especially when Jewish leaders here and in Israel speak openly of a troubling divide between Disapora and Israeli Jewry, and the rifts over a way forward, if possible, with Palestinians; especially when Jews are under attack in Europe, a region which expelled and murdered millions of its Jews less than a century ago; and especially when, as the most recent Pew study projects, Christians and Muslims will achieve world population parity by 2050, while in America, there will soon be more Muslims than Jews. In fact, Pew predicates the overall number of Jews, Christians and Buddhists shrinking, while "unaffiliateds" and Muslims increase.
I share this last idea not to be alarmist but to merely point out that nothing in life remains the same and the assumptions we make one year about the world we live in turn in a whole host of unpredictable ways. Sometimes we are pleasantly surprised by those changes; and other times, new leaders arise who "know not Joseph."
And so it is with no small amount of irony and hopefully a healthy dose of humility and ultimately hope, that I share with you these four brief mediations for Passover night. About a people that is impossibly small, with an enormous responsibility that it demands of itself for its rightful place in the world.
Jews Are a Family: "My father was a wandering Aramean," the Haggadah teaches us. Whether the rabbis meant for us to think of Abraham, who left Ur and Haran to make his way to Canaan as God had commanded; or they meant his grandson Jacob, who sojourned back to Haran where he lived and worked before returning to the Promised Land with a new name--Israel--we fundamentally trace our roots to someone, from someplace, who went in search of some thing, as commanded by some God who we have long claimed was the One God. We are a family with names, from places where we have lived, with linguistic and culinary traditions that we carry with us, as markers of where we have been, wherever we go. We tell our family story in generational ladders, from youngest to oldest and back again, forever climbing and conjuring, adding new rungs, from those born and those who chose to join us, claiming our name.
Jews Are a Faith: We believe in the God of Argument. We believe in the God of Questions. We believe in the God of Doubt. It's the only way we can take Her or Him at His or Her word. At Sodom and Gomorrah Abraham demands of God, "Shall the Judge of all the earth not rule with justice?" When Moses is asked to go free his brothers and sisters from slavery, he says, "And who exactly shall I tell them sent me?" implying, defiantly, that their very condition of suffering and slavery may be an expression of God's perceived powerlessness in the face of radical evil. Where was God when the Romans sacked Jerusalem and blood flowed in the streets? Where was God in the Crusades when Jews were killed for the religious crime of their faith? Where was God when the Nazis arose and mechanically, rationally, slaughtered millions? Elijah, who appears in our Seders tonight, is a contra voice in this faith conundrum, offering in his theological vision a God beyond materiality, beyond force, beyond power: after the wind, after the earthquake, after the fire, a still small voice. The still small voice of faith. Of moral conscience. A covenantal echo of justice heard by Abraham, by Moses, by Elijah. And heard, around Seder tables each year, by you and me.
Jews Are a Nation: We have a land, a fact undeniable in terms of history and archaeological evidence, though you wouldn't know it by the kind of vile propaganda that circulates on the internet. We have an ancient language, Hebrew; its cognate cousin, Aramaic; and a number of exilic iterations of Jewishness, most notably Yiddish and Ladino. We have a calendar. And we have a culture: literary, legal, moral, culinary, musical, even sartorial. When combined into one great whole, this constitutes our nation. Added to the fact that our faith tradition oriented us toward Jerusalem for two thousand years of exile and that by the mid-nineteenth century as Europe became blatantly less hospitable toward the Jew, Zionism emerged as the Jews' rightful expression of going home, a right afforded, or so it seemed, to every other nation on earth. The nature and dimension of that Zionist project may very well be debated around Seder tables tonight. However, the immutable right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate deserves to be, ought to be axiomatic. Be respectful of one another when you talk about Israel tonight, brothers and sisters; but deal with it.
Jews Are an Idea: Edgar Bronfman used to love to tell the story about realizing that the Talmudic debate over proper recompense for a neighbors ox that gored wasn't really about oxen and their gory horns but Justice. On Yom Kippur morning, when we're in the spiritual sweet spot of our penitential piety, the prophet Isaiah jolts us into consciousness by mocking our fast if we are not feeding the hungry and loosing the shackles of those in chains. Abraham smashes idols. Henrietta Szold builds hospitals. Radical Jews create labor unions and, mirroring the Sabbath law that Moses received on Mount Sinai, legislate the day of rest. We are an idea made clear by a German Jewish refugee, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, spoke just before the Reverend Dr. King at the March on Washington, declaring, "Our modern history begins with a proclamation of emancipation." (My teacher Naomi Levine helped write that line!) We believe that charity should actually be translated as "justice." And that one should give anonymously. That Moses couldn't see God's face but could hear his name as Kindness and Compassion. And we're an idea that says if you're planting a tree by the side of the road and someone comes to tell you that the Messiah is coming, first finish planting the tree, then go greet. We are an idea in the here and now.
In this springtime season of renewal, with great promise and great dangers afoot in the world for all people, may we find inspiration in the telling of our story; joy in the experience of being together; edification in the lessons passed down from our ancestors; meaning for us in our day; and the strength and inspiration to plant seeds of hope and justice for our families, our neighbors, our people and our world.