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Eat Together at the Passover Table; Live Together the Year Round
It is entirely possible that out of all of Passover's attractions for modern Jews, the very strongest is the opportunity to gather with family and friends.
It's not as if you could not eat a seder meal alone, or with just one or two others. A seder certainly can be that small and still fulfill the mitzvah of remembering the exodus from Egypt. But even when the rabbis quoted in Mishna celebrated Passover, people joined together for its rituals. The paschal lamb was usually sacrificed and shared by a community, rather than by a single person or even by a single family.
Celebrating Passover with a group did have a pragmatic purpose as well. It allowed families to pool their resources to obtain the paschal offering. But beyond the purely economic level, the advantages it offered were far deeper. Although each Jew could have celebrated his or her freedom alone, each had the opportunity to realize that any celebration is enhanced by community. Although each Jew, sitting alone, could have appreciated the fresh spring season that Passover heralds -- and could have been moved by the theme of dramatic rebirth that is an integral part of the Passover story -- being as one only enhanced those experiences.
In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam poignantly described a crisis in American society. Community is absent, he said; and so loneliness prevails. Both the joy and the comfort that can come from sharing both the good and the bad with others is missing from many people's lives.
The message of Passover extends beyond freedom and rebirth. Of course, those foundational messages are important. But today, Passover's deepest message to Jews is that our highest priority must be establishing the community as the central focus of Jewish life.
Jewish life is greatly enhanced when it is lived in community. There are some simchas that can be celebrated alone, but the joy is magnified enormously when it is celebrated by the community. A wedding, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, the birth of a child, a special anniversary -- each is best celebrated with other people.
We must recreate modern versions of the vibrant communities in which Jews always have lived if we are to reinvigorate Jewish life and enrich the life of each individual Jew. This will not happen by itself.
Communities are not created by chance, but through planning and commitment. Synagogues can begin by gradually changing their culture. Clergy and lay leaders must emphasize the importance of community, and suggest simple ways in which their members can reach out. It is crucial that someone who is new to the congregation is invited to share Shabbat or a holiday.
Not only must new members be greeted when they come to the synagogue, they must be invited to join in some of the smaller groups that make up the larger community. Even first-time visitors to a synagogue should be made to feel at home; by the time they leave, they should want to return. Many congregations talk about community. Few make a point of laboring to create one.
It's always more comfortable to spend time with people we already know, but if we want to live in a community, then each of us must reach out and invite people outside our circle to join us on the inside. Creating new bonds takes time and energy, and it involves taking a risk. But if we do not expend the energy, commit the time -- or take the risk -- we will not succeed.
This week, each of us will gather around a seder table. For a brief time, we will recreate part of the communal Passover experience our ancestors lived. Our challenge is to take the warmth and the inspiration from that moment, and use it to create and enlarge the communities that enrich Jewish life.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein is executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.