As we prepare for Passover, most of us clean as if there is no tomorrow. We scrub, we get rid of all of the leavening in the house – find the frost bitten dried bread in the back of the freezer among other things including the stale Cheerios under the couch. We review our recipes handed down to us from our families and attempt to make Matzah Balls that are eatable, light and fluffy. We strive to make a passover dessert that will not weigh us down and attempt to bring joy to those around us.
As Jews living in 2018, we take the Exodus narrative almost for granted. We know it, we have seen the movies made about it – we are “experts.” But throughout the entire Jewish Bible – including the Writings, the Prophetic Literature and the Torah itself – we read repeatedly a value that this story strives to teach us – “Love the stranger for you yourself were a stranger.”
In his recently published book, Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics, biblical scholar Jeremiah Unterman writes that “…it is startling that the legal portions of the Torah contain more than fifty references to the resident stranger….”
Why are we taught that this value is so essential to who we are as a people? I believe it is connected to a mitzvah which is equally hard for us to understand – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
James Kugel, in his book The Bible As It Was, argues that the mitzvah: “‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ did not necessarily apply to all human beings; nevertheless, it was seen as a great general principle and the epitome of the Torah’s commandments concerning relations among human beings.”
How can we love our neighbors if they are strangers? How can we ensure that our Houses of Worship are open to all people if they are still seen as strangers or other or different? What better way to make someone not a stranger than to break ‘matzah’ with them.
This practice was described when the book of Chronicles was written (approx. 4th Century BCE) as to how to celebrate the Passover meal. There they harmonized between two completing sources from the Torah: Deuteronomy where we boil the offering and Exodus where we roast the offering. The author writes that: “They boiled the passover sacrifice in the fire as prescribed.” (2 Chron 35:13). What this indicates (in addition to rewriting the text) is that the different Torah texts were reconciled to harmonize the differences and refocus onto the meal itself. The author of the book of Chronicles was writing to his community and he wanted to be relevant more than wanting to always be accurate. He wanted to focus on the fact that everyone in the Land of Israel was present with King Josiah who was observing the Passover festival for seven days and they did this as a nation together. The emphasis I believe was together.
I am sure that not all Israelites really were able to be present and observe – they didn’t all have the means nor the ability (free time). Yet the priests sang together, the King celebrated and the people enjoyed each other. What better way to enjoy than to eat, sing, tell stories, laugh and simply be together. The celebration of the holiday is reenacting the story of the Exodus yet for me the true meaning is doing it together with others. It is turning them from strangers into friends and family. It is about sharing recipes, tales of the ‘seder that never ended’ and laughing about the time your great aunt made the hottest horseradish ever.
So please enjoy Passover this year by taking the time over the course of the seven/eight days to turn a stranger into a friend, an acquaintance into a family member and a family member into someone you really want to celebrate with in the future and not obligated to have at the house.
Below is a small selection of verses from the Torah with this emphasis of welcoming the Stranger
“When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” [Leviticus 19:33-34]
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”(Ex.22:20).
“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex.23:9).
“You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut.10:19)
“You shall not hate an Egyptian, for you were stranger in his land” (Deut.23:8).
“Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment” (Deut. 24:22)