Opening the Door, at Passover and Always

March 11, 2013Stacey Zisook Robinson, z"l

There is a moment during the N'ilah service on Yom Kippur that stays with me, always. I want to say that it haunts me, but that's really not the right image. It's more a flooding, a rushing-out-and-rushing-in-at-the-exact-same-moment kind of thing. It is the instant of my surrender - to the moment, to God, to being.

I love that moment. I stand and pray and sing and fast and ask and wait and thirst and hunger, all day long, again and again, in a ritual that takes me to the desert wilderness and back again. I stand at those gates, and finally, near the end, when I am cold and dry-mouthed and my skin is fairly buzzing with weariness, I give.

I give, and all the artifice, all the ritual, all the expectation goes out in a single breath of air and lightness, replaced in an instant with quiet surrender. I stand before the gates, ready to walk through, and know that as I do, I will be met by God. Neither in nor out, but exactly there, time flows again, and I step through.

A gate. A doorway. Redemption. I am transfixed by the notion of standing at the gates.

That said, it should come as no surprise that I am also caught by the doors of Passover. The first door is an invitation. "This is the bread of our affliction," we say. "Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are needy come and celebrate the Passover." There's more, but this is the heart of it: open the door. The first time I read those words, I wept. The first time? Who am I kidding? Every time I read those words I weep. There is a world of hurt and need just beyond our walls. Open the door and let others in.

The second door is Elijah's. As children, we waited so expectantly, so watchfully. Did the wine shiver and disappear - even a little? Did something brush against a cheek or bump a chair? Year after year, we opened the door, bowing to ritual, but mostly just welcoming in the fresh air, and almost-but-not-quite believing that this would be the year that Elijah would come - to visit, to herald, to usher in Moshiach (the Messiah). Even as children, did we really expect such a miracle? Do we now? But we open the door, to Elijah and the hope - or perhaps merely the thought - of redemption.

Last year, as we have every other year, we opened the door during our seder, first for those in need, and then later for our redemption. It was no different than any other year, not really. Certainly, it was noisier (the best kind of noisy: kids and adults engaged, excited, participating, singing, talking, laughing, sometimes even praying). It felt more crowded and more relaxed and more wonderful than seders I had experienced over the last handful or two of years. But not different. Not really.

We opened the doors. We recited the words. We closed the doors. And then we got on with it. It felt, if not different, then perfunctory and unfinished. Sitting in Shabbat morning services a week later, I was struck with this thought: how utterly un-Jewish those Passover doors are.

And there it was, the source of my unease, my dissatisfaction: Since when do we, as Jews, require that those in need come to us for aid? Since when do we wait?

We are not a people who sit idly by. We act. We do. We repair. And we do this, when we do it most Jewishly, joyfully, purposefully. We climb the ladder that Maimonides showed to us so that we can reach out to others - enable others -to become independent and productive. And always, always, we repair our world with compassion: no shame, no fanfare, no tickertape parades. To wait for those in need to come to us, to announce to us their need, seems to fly in the face of our teaching.

I am reminded of a story that was told to me a decade or two ago. A woman was talking to a friend, bemoaning the lack of relationship-worthy partners. Her friend thought for a moment and said, "Write a list of all the qualities you want in a partner. When you're done, come back and we can talk." The woman went away, thoughtful. She worked diligently on her list; if it was to be her List (with a capital L), she wanted it to be her List in the best of all possible worlds kind of list, covering all the bases and every contingency. At last she was done and she came back to her friend, handing it over somewhat triumphantly. She was quite proud of her list of qualities. The friend glanced at the list, nodding her head occasionally. In short order (too short, thought the List creator), she handed back it and said, "Now, become all these things."

How Jewish! We climb that steep ladder of tzedakah (charity), we practice the obligations of tikkun olam (repair of the world), yes, because it is the right thing to do, but also because we do not wait. Do we want the Messiah to come? Then we must build a world in which the Messiah would like to be. To put it another way: We must become the change we want to see. We must act to build a better world.

Those doors of Passover, so filled with hope and potential! But it is not enough to just open the door and hope. It cannot be. There is no time to wait for those who hunger, or thirst, or need to come to us. We must step through those doors, into the world, to heal and repair, to be the change we want to see. We must step through the doors of Passover, and know that, as we do, there is God - there, exactly there. Perhaps it is there, exactly there, that we are redeemed.

Stacey Zisook Robinson is a member of Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Evanston, IL, and Congregation Hakafa in Glencoe, IL. She blogs at Stumbling towards meaning:  Stacey’s Blog.

Originally published at Stumbling Towards Meaning

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